Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports

A brief, shining geek triumph -- as told from the sidelines

By Brad Stone

Simon & Schuster (2003), $14

"Robot combat smelled like a geek triumph," Brad Stone writes in his chronicle of robotic sports, and for a brief moment nerds of all stripes shelved their 20-sided die and their Blade Runner director's cuts for the new craze. Cyberpunks, sci-fi conventioneers, tech-happy performance artists, the guy behind The Sims, the guys behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, the British -- they all wanted in.

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It was the Bay Area's shadow boom, beginning in the mid-'90s then fizzling after the millennium. Stone's book covers all the branches of the phenomenon, through its leaders and its cult -- an enterprise of geeks who weren't sure what they were (athletes? artists? entertainers?). Of course, the sport's founders spent much of their time trying not to sell out, wrangling over rights in lawsuit after lawsuit. And so Gearheads slogs along as a thorough but dry courtroom procedural -- "a cautionary tale for every inventor or entrepreneur," writes Stone, a Newsweek correspondent, in the prologue.

The chief problem with the book is that Stone is content to stand on the sidelines and offer play-by-play, but he never truly locates the sport in a broader context like, say, war. Isn't the instinct that gave us BattleBots the same one that fashions an unmanned drone to shoot hellfire missiles from a cloud in Yemen? BattleBots is probably as close a cousin to modern-day combat as football was to trench warfare a century ago. Perhaps that's the real geek triumph.

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