Book Review: vN by Madeline Ashby
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Machine Dynasty
Publisher: Angry Robot (July 31, 2012)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
While reading vN, I was frequently reminded of a mission statement I saw once on Angry Robot’s website – to publish the best in modern adult genre fiction, or in their words, “SF, F and WTF?!” This book certainly falls mostly in the first category, but also possesses a strong generous splash of the third.
At the heart of vN is a story about choice and independence in synthetic humans/artificial intelligences which in itself is not a very original premise in science fiction, but Ashby piles on a ton of new ideas of her own that make this book a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read. Called “vonNeumanns” or vNs after their creator, the original proposal for the self-replicating humanoid robots in this novel in fact came from the most unlikely source – an End Times group who wanted to leave a body of helpers behind for the millions of unsaved after the rapture.
Other bizarre or perturbing things include a graphic scene of robot cannibalism; a harrowing jail break; a male vN giving birth (or “iterating”) in a sticky, gooey process; the implication that pedophiles acquire vN and make them stay forever young by keeping them – all in the prologue and first couple of chapters. The robots have a failsafe that prevent them from doing harm to humans, and witnessing anything violent or upsetting can risk triggering it, shorting the vN out. But still, while it’s apparent that vNs themselves look, act and have emotions much like humans do, their lives aren’t valued the same way; non-functioning or “blue-screened” vN are tossed aside like garbage, a process described in all its unpleasantness. Not to mention the use of vNs in the porn industry, or some of the other sickening and questionable things humans do to them. All this made the book a unique and sometimes eyebrow-raising read, but at least there’s no accusing it of not being able to hold my attention.
That this is an adult novel is no doubt a given, considering some of its mature themes. But within it I was also a little surprised to find a coming-of-age story … in a sense. The book’s protagonist Amy is a vN living in a mixed-family, a young iteration of her vN mother who is of the same clade. Amy’s human father, perhaps a little naively, tries to give his android daughter a “normal” life, controlling her diet so that she physically looks like a little girl, attending school and participating in other activities that real kids do. But when an incident strikes Amy’s kindergarten graduation, Amy ends up devouring her vN grandmother (yeah, you read that right…it’s a long, freaky story), somehow integrating her software. The extra food source also transforms Amy, so overnight she becomes a grown woman sharing her mind with the voice of her psychotic grandmother.
Literally a new person, Amy is forced to make her way through the world and gain an adult perspective on matters her parents had previously shielded her from. In a way, everything is new and strange to her and the reader both. I found myself asking the same questions as her about the things she saw. Was her father deluding himself with the life he wanted for himself and for her? What is a vN’s role: helper, companion or just another technological tool? How should society deal with sentient beings that aren’t really alive? Are artificial intelligences even capable of love? Is Amy limited by her programming, or is there a possibility of growing beyond her code?
Despite some of the weirdness in this novel, it is a fascinating tale of Amy’s self-discovery and emergence from the shadow of others’ expectations of her. Probably my biggest disappointment was the way things ended. It was a pretty weak conclusion, a little random and out of nowhere after everything that came before, but the tepid ending notwithstanding, I thought this was an overall absorbing and poignant read. Definitely one of the bolder, more provocative titles from Angry Robot.