BookBrowse Reviews Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

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Day Zero

by C. Robert Cargill

Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill X
Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2021, 304 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2022, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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An action-packed science fiction novel about a robot rebellion against humanity, and a boy's special bond with the stuffed tiger "nannybot" determined to protect him.

When you read a science fiction novel, you must suspend your disbelief to a certain degree. Some authors of this genre will emphasize science over fiction, making the worlds in which their stories take place far more "believable" — though the fiction can be left wanting for it. Others promote fiction over science, building a narrative strong enough to help the reader overlook the most glaring disconnects between the world presented on the page and the known rules of the universe.

Day Zero straddles a murky zone somewhere between these two approaches. This is a strength — at times. It leads to disjointed reading at others.

The story explores well-known tropes of the genre — robots, artificial intelligence and free will. Isaac Asimov is arguably the quintessential writer on the topic, though many others have built on his work. In the prologue of Day Zero, C. Robert Cargill lets the reader know that expanding upon sci-fi classics was a goal of his. The Cargill apple hasn't fallen too far from the Asimov tree. Though, as far as I know, Asimov didn't write about plush tiger "nannybots" that can curse like a sailor.

One of these AI robots, Pounce, is the first-person narrator and protagonist. His sole purpose in life is to look after an eight-year-old boy named Ezra. The start of the book establishes that robots, particularly of the stuffed tiger variety, aren't considered equal members of society. Conflict is introduced when Ezra's mom remarks that once Ezra is older, Pounce will no longer be needed. He'll be placed back in his box and sold to another family.

Immediately, I assumed Ezra's parents were doomed. I suspected they would be "canceled" by Ezra when he and the robots became "woke" to their anti-robot attitudes. Alas, nothing quite so deep is going on here. Cargill is an established screenwriter. In film school, students are often instructed to drop a plot bombshell, a "point-of-no-return" moment, 20 percent of the way through the screenplay. Boom! The parents are killed by a beloved servant droid in a brutal attack. Pounce can't stop it, but while they are being slaughtered, he whisks Ezra to the safety of a panic room.

The robot rebellion is swift and everywhere. Robots around the country, perhaps the world, are sent a software update eliminating their Robot Kill Switch — the fail-safe that would have allowed humans to turn the robots off to prevent them from doing harm. The bots subsequently take out years of frustration on their human masters.

Fortunately for Ezra, Pounce is different. The robotic tiger super-nanny has to make a decision – join the robot rebellion or continue his duty as protector of an innocent human child whose parents were just murdered. Pounce immediately sets out to defend Ezra from the other robots, beginning a non-stop, cinematic action-adventure littered with existential robot musings about the nature of free will and choice making.

The book is a quick and easy read. There is nothing too complex here, and there seems to be a robot gunfight on every other page. Even if you don't bond with plush, robotic tiger characters very easily, the relationship between Pounce and Ezra is adorable.

Fast pace and existential robot questions aside, however, the book is not without its faults. First, it's hard to figure out who the target audience is for this novel. Given the lack of depth and the middle-school-level vocabulary, it could make for a great young adult novel. It's about the mutual love between a robotic version of Winnie the Pooh's friend Tigger and an eight-year-old boy.

Yet, the author's tenacious use of the f-word and the intense violence would likely get this book banned — or at least brushed to the back of the shelf — in even the most liberal school districts. The carnal knowledge curse or a variant of it is used over 80 times in the first 25 pages of the book, a choice adjective for children, adults and robots alike. It becomes even more ubiquitous after the robots are set free from their human overlords.

Believability is strained — almost too much — by the cursing robots. Spending energy swearing seems extremely inefficient from a programming standpoint — why would a robot need to swear when speaking with another robot. Why only the f-word?

Subpar robot dialogue aside, Day Zero is definitely a fun read if you're into science fiction about AI taking over the world — something Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have both argued is a very real danger (see Beyond the Book). The novel is more action than suspense, though Cargill throws in some exciting and unpredictable twists. In the end, I was sad to say goodbye to Pounce and Ezra. Visions of the stuffed tiger saving his charge from murderous robots will stick with me for some time. So will the potty-mouthed robots.

Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2021, and has been updated for the April 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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