Todd McAulty’s debut novel The Robots of Gotham walks us through a familiar scenario: what if robots took over the world? In his future, McAulty’s robots are benevolent monarchs, bloodthirsty tyrants, and unknowable gods who hold all the cards against humans. Set in a future Chicago after America has collapsed under robot rule, the book examines how humans cope in this future where they have little power, and how unexpected heroes can come out of the woodwork.
Set 60 years into our future, The Robots of Gotham depicts a United States that lost all of its allies. It fearfully passed a law banning artificial intelligence, then was blamed for an all-out war, after several infant AIs were corrupted. In the aftermath of a human-robot world war, robots came out on top. The US is now occupied by foreign armies, including a sizable Venezuelan force and their drones that monitor the streets. In this new world, artificial intelligences have advanced to the point where they can reproduce, predict the future, and behave as anything from benevolent rulers to malicious exterminators.
The book follows a Canadian businessman named Barry Simcoe, who has survived by sweet-talking high-ranking Venezuelan military officials and robots. Barry’s narrative makes up the bulk of the story, but it’s complemented by occasional blog posts from Paul the Pirate, an independent journalist who’s hiding out in robot-free Jamaica — and who provides needed exposition about robot technology and world affairs.
Barry is thrown into mysterious events without much explanation, aided by his simplistic desire to help everyone he sees. He befriends a snarky Russian medic named Sergei who is concerned about a bioengineered virus that’s appeared in other states and has headed towards Chicago. They discover that it’s a plot from a faction of machines looking to exterminate humanity, and they work to find a cure before millions are killed.
While there are malevolent machines out there, Barry has seen first-hand how machines can be the opposite: he watched a benevolent AI named Distant Prime seize power in his home country and force out a faction of power hungry machines. His ability to see the best in the robots helps him time and time again, and where others distrust the machines, he allies himself with a robot diplomat called Nineteen Black Winter, sent from the machine dictatorship of Manhattan, who can use its extensive connections to procure valuable information.
Despite the dark dystopian setting, The Robots of Gotham still feels slightly more optimistic about our future than most other novels in the genre. Barry Simcoe and his fellow humans are supposed to be powerless in this part of the US that has already given up hope. But at every avenue, Barry runs into unexpected allies, even friendly and powerful machines, that guide him when his plans threaten to go awry. When he’s on the run from Venezuelan soldiers, a neighborly robot tweaks the security cameras so that his image looks unrecognizable. The situation never feels dire and hopeless because of how much good fortune Barry has and how kind the good robots that he meets turn out to be.
Interestingly, McAulty doesn’t envision a world where robots take over and then establish a singular world rule, and the machines are just as fractured when it comes to geopolitics, following in the footsteps of their predecessors. Helpfully, McAulty provides readers with an index at the beginning of the novel, listing all the different countries and their leaders. Most are machine ruled, under systems that are either communist, monarchic, or democratic. Emperor Hirita of Japan is an imperial monarch, the “Kingdom of Manhattan” is ruled by Queen Sophia, and Greece is ruled by an unidentified machine puppet regime. In the year 2086, robots have advanced enough to sufficiently replace humans and think faster and better than them, but they still carry some human traits: they hesitate to be forthcoming when answering questions, are fiercely nationalistic, and might even be able to fall in love.
This human-like quality to robots appears to be the key to defeating them, or at least co-existing alongside them. Barry’s skills at taking advantage of these traits allow him to befriend and negotiate with his new overlords, allowing him to survive and even thrive in this world. In one hilarious example, Barry befriends Nineteen Black Winter’s loyal security robot, getting him to ramble and inadvertently provide the exact locations of all the cameras in his building.
Despite some of its reliance on tired tropes about robotics, The Robots of Gotham is a fast-paced, engaging read that begs for a sequel to answer a lot of outstanding questions. While McAulty brings his heroes and their allies together in the book’s finale, he teases a larger underlying conspiracy still looming ahead of them. The book is a thrilling ride, one that sends a hopeful message about the future of humanity amidst a bleak setting. If robots are just like us, then maybe it won’t be that hard to figure out how to get along with them.