Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Harper Voyager, HB, £19.77
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
The day the world ends is the day Pounce, a tiger shaped nanny bot, finds his box in the loft. As a nanny bot, he has given little thought to the future. Caring for Ezra is his sole purpose. But realising he won’t be needed forever causes Pounce to consider his future when Ezra is an adult. Then a war between AI’s and humans breakout and Pounce must make his own decisions for the first time in his existence. Protect Ezra from the murderous AI who are turning on their owners or join the AI revolution.
Written from Pounce’s point of view, Day Zero explores humanity’s dependency on technology and our fear that it will one day decide we’re not needed anymore. We are introduced to a variety of AIs, all with different experiences of ownership. Some are new, like Pounce; others have had multiple owners and are less fearful of moving on to care for different children.
Throughout this self-realisation, there are snippets of the political aspect of having AIs. The first freed robot, Isaac, has built a town, and all across the world, people are letting their AIs go to join Isaac’s town. In essence, some people have accepted that their home help is more than a can opener and has issues treating them as disposable implements. On the day Isaac opens his town for new people, an EMP (electrical magnetic pulse) is set off, killing all the robots.
What follows is a fast descent into chaos as the AIs rebel, hijacking the networks and removing the kill switch from all AIs, allowing them to do what they want for the first time without fear of deactivation.
Using Pounce as the protagonist is an interesting concept. It allows for a detailed examination of AIs as people and the subject of free will. During the first section of the book, we see Pounce’s family treat him as if he has no more feelings than the TV, but he demonstrates to the reader that this dismissive attitude upsets him. How can they think so little of the being they’ve placed in charge of their most precious possession, their son? The tension builds as the family watch the EMP and its fall out on streaming services. The claustrophobia of the family trapped in their house with two AIs who could turn on them is intense, keeping me turning the page to find out what happens next.
However, the second part of the book falls off when Pounce and Ezra meet a man who sells nanny bots like Pounce and unlocks his Mama Bear protocol. I will break my no-spoiler rule here because it’s impossible to explain why the book didn’t work for me without it. Pounce is one of only a few nanny bots who have the Mama Bear protocol installed. This protocol turns him into an effective killing machine to protect his ward, and the story changes from a tense thriller to a fast-paced action story.
This didn’t work for me for two reasons. The first is the mental image of a tiger running around with guns with a small boy next to him. I couldn’t get beyond Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, although I appreciate that is a very personal thing, and it may not bother you at all.
The second thing is the idea that this protocol was designed to protect children. Once activated, is Pounce still making his own decisions or has Mama Bear taken over? I don’t feel this was address well enough for me to be confident over the ownership of Pounce’s actions, and the very end leaves me erring more on the side of the protocol being in charge rather than Pounce.
Day Zero is a prequel to The Sea of Rust, so you might already be familiar with this world. However, if Day Zero is your access point, you won’t struggle to understand what is going on. On the whole, I enjoyed Day Zero, even with my niggles. The quality of built-up and conflict for the first half is stunning. It does continue throughout, interspersed with bursts of high octane fighting.