The Robots of Gotham (2018) is the debut novel from Todd McAulty, and though it’s chock-full of robots, only one of them seems to actually be from Gotham, and the entirety of the book’s nearly-700 pages take place in Chicago. So it’s a slightly misleading title, but there are more than enough explosions, stealth missions, and metal-clad behemoths to make up for it.
In a nutshell, there are humans — mostly part of the Venezuelan army, though the people themselves comprise a multitude of nationalities, and there are two different factions representing American blocs — and there are intelligent machines — some of whom are from the Kingdom of Manhattan, some of whom are unaffiliated, and some of whom aren’t supposed to exist. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially since any one of those groups seem happy to shoot at Barry for any reason, and this isn’t the opening salvo of a war but rather just a small part of a much larger campaign that’s been waged in the four years since the first machine coup of a human government, back in 2079, which quickly lead to the collapse of most human governments in favor of machines.
Our hero is Barry Simcoe, Canadian businessman and expert negotiator, newly arrived in Chicago as dictated by his job for a software company called Ghost Impulse. Unfortunately, Barry got to Chicago just a few days before everything went haywire and the city became an open battleground between various factions vying for control over the city. Barry’s innate compassion for all living things brings him to the attention of both the Venezuelan force and a representative of the Kingdom of Manhattan, setting into motion a chain of events that will change his life, and possibly life of all kinds, forever.
Thankfully, Barry’s online journal entries detailing his almost-unbelievable experiences during three weeks in March of 2083 are intercut with publically-available blog posts from Paul the Pirate, a wisecracking Thought Machine who likes fishing in Jamaica and speaking out against bigots of any type. Paul’s a neat guy, from the sound of things, and his insights into the conflicts between humans and machines, information about different gradients of intelligent machines, and commentary on the conflicts between factions of machines, provide much-needed context for what Barry’s dealing with and why. (Within The Robots of Gotham, Barry subscribes to and enjoys Paul’s posts, but Paul is completely separate from and uninvolved with Barry’s actions.)
In short order, the hotel Barry is staying at is evacuated by the aforementioned Venezuelans, he’s nearly killed by an American Union mech, he’s nearly killed while trying to save the life of a Venezuelan corporal, he negotiates the repair of a badly damaged Star Wars-quoting Thought Machine named Nineteen Black Winter, Black Winter repays the favor by hooking Barry up with some very interesting information about the Kingdom of Manhattan and what the Venezuelans are doing to Chicago, a Russian medic working with the Venezuelans taps Barry for help with a clandestine medical problem, and Barry gets his hands on some very top-secret American tech while very nearly getting killed. Also, he adopts a dog and awkwardly flirts with two different ladies, creating an unwelcome and beyond farcical pseudo-love triangle. Again, it’s a lot, especially when a supposedly uncrackable coded phrase is introduced early on, which completely stymies the characters for no reason that I could discern; their repeated misinterpretations of the message rapidly became frustrating, especially because even though Black Winter has access to literally incredible stores of information, the reader is meant to think he doesn’t know the first thing about astronomy, or even at the very least, have access to an equivalent of Google.
Barry’s generally no superman; his skill is with words, not pistols or incendiary devices, and more than once his life is saved because he’s willing to build relationships with people and machines. Whether he’s traipsing through a hotel in search of stray dogs that need food and water, slipping through the shadows of the Field Museum and saying hi to Sue, or stealing some ridiculously high-tech American field equipment and then using that equipment to navigate the cavernous tunnels beneath Chicago, McAulty keeps Barry firmly grounded within a realistic scope of capability. He’s also very Canadian, providing his own welcome commentary on the often over-militarized and troublesome Americans who contributed more than their fair share to the currently-balkanized state of the world. It’s near the end of The Robots of Gotham, when a high-stakes heist takes place during a fancy dress party, that his middle-aged businessman persona is eclipsed by the demands of espionage, and his legerdemain and skullduggery strain the boundaries of belief.
On the whole, the book didn’t quite feel balanced, and I sometimes felt like I was reading the script for a video game — the primary quest-giver would dictate a goal for Barry to achieve, he would exit the hotel/base and perform certain tasks, then return to base for a sitrep and debrief; the quest-giver would dictate a new goal, Barry would leave in pursuit of that goal, etc. There were a lot of questions left unanswered and details left untouched, including that coded phrase, leaving the door wide open for further books. But McAulty’s prose churns forward relentlessly, propelling Barry from one dangerous situation to the next, and anyone familiar with Chicago will recognize and appreciate his dedication to making the city feel as real as possible. I’m hoping that subsequent books will provide more insight into the machine communities and their interactions with humans.