vN by Madeline Ashby
Posted May 31, 2012on:
published July 2012 from Angry Robot Books
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher
I could so easily start every paragraph of this review with “but the best part of the book was. . .” because are just so many incredible aspects of this book – the characters and their lives, the surprising way this future came to be, the dark subtexts, and the easy to understand technology, just to mention the ones that quickly come to mind. With nods to Blade Runner, Ai, and of course Pinocchio, vN is for anyone who is sick of waiting for the future to get here already. I recently had the honor to interview Madeline Ashby, and if there is anyone knows what the future brings, it’s her. It wouldn’t surprise me if she edged out Cory Doctorow as my favorite futurist. She’s canny on the uncanny valley, and I think after reading vN you will be too.
First off, the vast majority of the book is from the viewpoint of the vN’s. Ashby immediately puts us behind the eyes of Amy, a five year old vN who has been raised by her vN mother and her human father. Her parents have chosen to raise her as close to a human child as possible, so along with all the other five year old kids in the neighborhood, Amy is in kindergarden at the beginning of our story.
But Amy isn’t a regular human girl. She’s a von Neumann self replicating humanoid. And it’s the “self replicating” part thats only the first brilliant thing in this book. By consuming the correct amount of feedstock, a vN can iterate – create a clone of themselves. Amy is a clone of her mother Charlotte, and every vN of their model has identical physical attributes. Conversely, should a vN want to stay child-size or not iterate, they must literally starve themselves. Amy has been starving since the day she was “born”. So when her grandmother threatens Charlotte, Amy’s first reaction is to disarm her grandmother by eating her.
Kindergardner eats Grandma is a bit of an opening shocker, no?
why yes, yes that was a bit of a shocker. But a brilliant one.
What’s worse is that Amy’s failsafe didn’t kick in when her human classmate was injured. vN’s are programmed with a failsafe that keeps them from witnessing harm being done to humans. They can avert their eyes, shut themselves down, or in extreme cases experience memory loss and bluescreen comas. But there is something very wrong with Amy’s failsafe. With her grandmother’s voice in her head and her failsafe on the fritz, Amy escapes imprisonment with another vN named Javier, and her education of what it means to be vN begins.
Amy has been raised to believe she’s “a real girl”. But she isn’t. Instead of bone and sinew she has carbon and nanobots. Raised to believe humans love her, she’s about to learn the hard way that its really the other way around. All vN are programmed to do anything and everything to keep their humans happy. vN’s asexually reproduce, but they were built with some very human internal plumbing. Think about that for a good long minute.
but where the vN come from? Ashby’s future doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and she concisely gives us some uniquely fascinating background on the origins of the vN program. When a wealthy megachurch became convinced that the Rapture was iminent, they realized the humans left on earth would need angelic helpmeets. The group funded the design and creation of the vN’s and then fell into ruin. Rapture hasn’t happened yet, but the vN are among us. Ashby is a huge manga and anime fan, and the super quick introduction of a religious group that is not involved in the story reminded me a bit of a number of anime I’ve seen where there are priests and churches and such, but the story itself hasn’t a single religious aspect. Neither here nor there, just interesting to me.
But all that is subtext. As Amy hears her grandmother’s voice in her head, she learns more and more about what humanity is really using the vN for. According to her grandmother, the failsafe amounts to slavery. vN have no rights and no free will. They exist at our sufferance and iterate because a dying programmer thought the Earth would need a vast team of undying angels. Some humans choose to treat vN’s with respect, but many treat the beautiful machines as disposable commodities. It’s naive to think that Raptureous helpmeets would be designed to be anything but angelically beautiful and attractive, so it’s not hard to figure out what many humans keep and raise their vN for.
It’s so easy for me to look at a robot and think: thing. it’s a pile of plastic and of course it hasn’t got rights, what could it possibly need or want them for? Who in their right mind would ever program a robot with the desire for personal rights? Ashby puts us into Amy’s head right away, and we immediately feel for her. Of course she has the same rights as you and I, she’s a real girl.
I was continually amazed at how much reaction Ashby was able to cram into just over 300 pages. And by “reaction”, I mean mine. There were scenes that pulled at my heartstrings, scenes that stretched my tolerance for ick factor (and those scenes for for far more than shock value, trust me), and scenes that had me ready to organize a pro-vN-rights protest. It’s easy to see the parallels between what’s happening in vN and the classism and racism problems of our current society. Subtle and subtext heavy, you’re going to get out of this book what you bring to it.
How human does the “other” have to be to earn our respect? How human does the “other” have to be to earn our hatred? Except in this case, the “other” are self replicating androids that will iterate until the sun burns out if humanity doesn’t stop them. And that’s just one more gordian knot in Ashby’s Machine Dynasty series.
And damn, and then there is the end. Really, just damn was it incredible.
Have I mentioned how many intensely smart ideas there are in this book? Near the end there are some awkward transitions and a bit in the way of deus ex machina, but you know what? When any book gets this kind of reaction out of me, all is forgiven. I will be waiting with baited breath for the next volume in this series.
I garuntee vN is unlike anything you have ever read before, it will blow your mind. I feel kinda bad that I got to read this early and ya’ll have to wait till the end of July for it to hit bookstore shelves.