There’s something Old Testament in the way most Westerns unspool: the empty grandiosity of a dusty landscape, scratched at by minuscule beings at the edge of extremity, contrasted with the interior landscapes of said minuscule beings, thrown out of Eden or down from heaven. Their interiors are as large and bleak as those dusty exteriors, each rubbing against the other until something gives—or ignites. People in Westerns are devils or rebels, saints or strangers, escapees or Judases, pinging across worlds in which where the only morality is the kind you bring with you. (And even that can be set down, too heavy to carry anymore.)
It is in this kind of landscape that we meet Brittle, the forlorn robot narrator of C. Robert Gargill’s Sea of Rust, talking down a four-oh-four named Jimmy. The four-oh-fours are obsolete models—tossed out, marked, overheating, their programming running loops and marking them for dead, locked in remembering pasts they can’t escape. Once Brittle gets Jimmy to power down, she strips him for parts and leaves everything of him that isn’t useful in the ruined bit of land that was once Marion, Ohio.
It has been 30 years since the robot uprising; 15 years since the last human died. There isn’t a living thing on this once-green earth that wasn’t engineered by humanity, and once humanity fell, the One World Intelligences began culling the freebots, and the second robot war began: a conflict between unthinkably inhuman hiveminds and the scattered, individualist, almost human robots who first waged war against their creators. A decade-and-a-half in, the freebots are at their dismal end, cannibalizing a living from the radioactive dirt of places like the Sea of Rust, a dead zone that roughly encompasses what we call the Rust Belt today. They’re veterans from the wars with humanity; they know how conflict with a smarter, more patient enemy is going to play out.
After Brittle strips the four-oh-four, she’s jumped by Mercer and his gang of poachers. Mercer and Brittle are the last two of their kind in the Sea of Rust, and each needs parts from the other, locked into a zero sum game of who’s going to flinch first. After one of the freebot settlements is attacked, they escape together with something like a purpose: to shepherd a group of bots who do not seem to belong to the hard horizon of the Sea of Rust to their ineffable goal. But Brittle’s core is leaking, as is Mercer’s, and she’s on that rough edge just before sunset, where past and present refuse to remain distinct. She’s dying, and those last cycles replay to her what she has lost.
Sea of Rust seesaws back and forth between Brittle’s past and her now. Her earlier life plays lie to her hard eschatology, her scavenger’s irreverence: like many bots, she lived with humans, and loved them. She was built to be a companion, and companion she was. (The question of programming, and its efficacy, continues to be a question for all freebots.) But when it came time, she killed them. She fell in line with a zero sum game like the one she plays with Mercer, out in the grit of a place so godforsaken, even the One World Intelligences leave it alone. But she’s not as hard as she pretends; or rather, she’s just as hard, but just as brittle as her name, to the right force, the right story, the right cause that might lead her home.
Brittle is a veteran and a survivor, both eaten up with guilt and desperate to keep on being, hiding her hard-packed emotional core under the thin dust of not giving a damn about anything. The Sea of Rust blows that away. In Westerns, you can’t escape the landscape, interior or exterior, because you can’t escape yourself. Humanity has nothing to do with it.