the Little Red Reviewer

Interview with Madeline Ashby, author of vN

Posted on: May 30, 2012

I was gone for a few days, and someone started giving away some of my Very Good Books?  As much as I love getting and receiving VeryGoodBooks, it’s also great to share them and pass them on when I’m done with them.  Maybe I should do these long weekends out of town more often!

While I was gone, I devoured Madeline Ashby’s debut novel vN, which hits bookstore shelves in late July.  I did truly devour it. I had planned to read it a little bit here, a little bit there, over coffee, enjoying my Mom’s garden, and nope. Once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. It was finished before I even got to my parents house. Alluring cover art and a fascinating premise of a future where self replicating humanoids live side by side with humans, marrying humans, being raised as human children, being told they are equal to humans, and well, sometimes not.

With nods to Bladerunner and AI, vN is what you should be reading if you’re canny on the uncanny valley. Suffice to say, I was thrilled when Ms. Ashby offered to answer a few questions for me. While you’re waiting for my review (it’ll post tomorrow if I can get my act together later today), let’s better get to know Madeline Ashby – Strategic Foresight Consultant, science fiction writer, lover of manga and anime, and the woman who proved you CAN do a masters degree on a science fictional topic. Twice.

L.R.R. You can find manga in any bookstore and anime on nearly any television station these days, but this wasn’t always the case. How did you get hooked on manga and anime? Where would you suggest someone new to those forms start?

M.A. I had friends in high school who were interested in anime. Specifically, someone who used the characters of Haruka and Michiru (Sailors Uranus and Neptune, respectively) on Sailor Moon to talk about her own sexuality. But she wasn’t the only one. I had friends who were into Evangelion and Utena and Fushigi Yuugi. I watched movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell with them. That pattern didn’t change in university or afterward. I still watch anime with friends.

If I were suggesting anime titles to anyone, I would ask them what genres they like in the first place. If they want science fiction with a side of deep characterization and pulse-pounding action, Cowboy Bebop. If they want a thoughtful slice-of-life dramedy with a side of tender romance, then Fruits Basket. If they want something totally surreal, then FLCL or Paranoia Agent. If they want something meta, something that comments on a genre from within that genre, then Madoka or Evangelion.

L.R.R. vN opens with a  beautiful family scene between Amy and her parents; her vN mother Charlotte, and her human father Jack.  They have a healthy normal family life. I realize this is a loaded question, but do you think this is a possible future for humanity – mixed couples of one human partner and one synthetic/humanoid partner?

M.A. David Levy, the author of Love and Sex with Robots, would certainly say so. He’s an expert on artificial intelligence, primarily with regard to programming chess games. I’m sure there are plenty of commonalities between sex and chess, but not being a chess player I wouldn’t know them. For my part, I think there are already people who would embrace a mixed organic/synthetic life. One thing I tried to make clear about those relationships in the novel is that they’re what happens at the end of the line. When you’ve been hurt and betrayed by your fellow humans too many times, when you’re just too tired of looking, when you realize you have a very particular fetish no random individual could reasonably be expected to satisfy, when you’re just done with the whole dance — that’s when vN come in.

L.R.R. There’s some obvious racism in vN against the humanoids. Most people see them as things, not people. Slight parallel to how easy it is for us to dehumanize any person we tag as “other”, or am I reading too much into it?

M.A. There is that, for sure. I also figured that it would be difficult for some people to see them as anything other than pieces of consumer technology to be used and discarded at a moment’s notice. They’re commodities. And the reality now is that we already treat certain marginalized people as commodities (I’m thinking primarily about the sex trade here, but it happens elsewhere in other industries) and that’s plenty dehumanizing.

L.R.R. There’s a dark subtext in vN that points towards humanity’s darker instincts. Are you hinting that technology run amok (survellieance, humanoid robots, etc) enables our darker sides?

M.A. No, I think we enable our darker sides all on our own. But I also think technologies enable a certain distancing between the self and the act. We have people in Provo, Utah who pilot predator drones over Afghanistan. They push a button, and buildings explode and people die. It’s all by remote. I think that’s what certain technologies can do — they can take us out of the action, and make us feel better about what we’re really doing. High-functioning humanoid robots, if DARPA finds a winning entry to their competition to build one, will probably be no different.

L.R.R. If possible, can you tell us anything about where the Machine Dynasty is headed? When can we expect to see the next book in the series?

M.A. The next book in the series is called iD, unless I find something I like better. It’s about Javier, who’s a supporting character in vN. He’s on a quest for redemption and revenge, and he’s discovering who he’s become along the way. In vN he makes some pretty serious changes to his life, and now he has to deal with those. Doing that means finding out more about the vN came to be, and calling on some of his old skills to find out that information.

L.R.R. My Mom would like to know what a Strategic Foresight Consultant does.

M.A. I help people envision the type of future they want, and then I help them figure out how to get there or how to recognize it when it’s coming. What that really means is that I do everything from facilitate workshops to conduct trends research to write science fiction scenarios about technologies in development. Sometimes I work as part of a design lab, and sometimes I work independently. It’s pretty great.

L.R.R. I hear you are petite like me (I’m five feet tall). Ever get “you sounded taller on the phone” or “you seemed taller on skype”?

M.A. My voice does seem to have an effect on people. I had a professor once who told me that when I lost my voice to a bout of illness, I had lost all my power. I’m not sure how accurate that was objectively, but I took it as a life lesson. No voice, no power.

You can learn more about Madeline Ashby, her fiction, her writings on the future at BoingBoing, Tor.com, i09 and elsewhere at her website, madelineashby.com . If this interview catches your attention, vN will be sure to blow your mind.

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1 Response to "Interview with Madeline Ashby, author of vN"

Really interesting – looking forward to your review.
Lynn :D

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