vN – Madeline Ashby

Posted on August 7, 2012

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Amy Peterson is a self-replicating humanoid robot known as a VonNeumann (vN). For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive. Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that she alone can kill humans without failsafing..

Stories about the co-existence of robots and humans are nothing new but with vN Madeleine Ashby’s debut novel attempts to redress the balance a little with some unique twists and takes on the usual format. Beginning with a window into a family-driven world where Amy’s mother (a vN) and her father (a human) attempt at family life make for a whole story within itself. Amy’s struggles at school and the ensuing dilemma for her parents make for a captivating opening – which takes a bizarre twist at her graduation ceremony when her grandmother arrives..

One key concept behind the Von Neumann or vN’s is that whilst they look and act to all intents and purposes like humans (even if they struggle with the nuances of displaying emotions in their strive for perfection) they have a failsafe that causes them to lock up and stop working if harm comes to humans. This effectively emotionally enslaves them to their ‘human’ masters and later in the book becomes a literal enslavement in some cases. Special vN provisions have to be made in order to prevent the vN’s from seeing or experiencing unfortunate situations that would cause widespread failsafes. The other, of course, is their ability to self-replicate – which in turn raises a myriad of searching questions – not only in the context of the book, but also in how far our technology will go in this direction.

Amy is a very complex character. Tuned in to detail rather than emotion, she grows throughout the story. Pairing her with the unsympathetic Javier is an interesting move as the duo bring out different qualities within each other. The old and the young contrast in what becomes an unlikely love story. To Ashby’s credit, the relationship between the two robots is believable and carefully maintained. At times though, having the vN narrate the story presents difficulties. Despite Amy growing throughout the novel, at times the narrative pulls you back to her robotic, detail-laden but possibly stunted view of the world.

By far not a light read, in glimpses vN can be extraordinarily dark, sometimes unremittingly so – from the cannibalistic gestalt of Amy’s clade as it moves to consume her, or the unnerving character who keeps vN’s as children to satisfy his desires are all flesh-crawlingly creepy in different, but unique ways. Unfortunately, vN is also confusing at times. Trying to keep in your head who is who, and juggling the multiple subplots whilst also learning about this new world is a struggle.

Make no mistake; the concept of the story is terrific. The idea of this robotic tinderbox, ready to self-replicate at any given moment unless its diet is controlled is a very interesting one. Combined with the idea that each new ‘iteration’ is like a new and improved version of the one before it, it is pretty mind-bending stuff in the vein of Asimov. Neither does vN shy away from the moral dilemmas presented by the characters and situations – especially with respect to Amy, who by iteration, might have the vN equivalent of free will.

The inclusion of familiar computer jargon is neat – the next time that my computer bluescreens I’m sure that the glassy eyed stare of vN who have failsafed will crop into my brain. Having Portia ‘stored’ within Amy’s brain as a partition of her hard drive brain that’s gone wrong is a fascinating one that breathes new life into the Jekyll and Hyde story. However, some of the scientific jargon isn’t as user-friendly, and you can glaze over some of the more wordier segments.

On balance vN had a very strong start that the plot just couldn’t sustain over the course of the novel. The road-trip plot was by far of least interest to me, at times I felt disengaged from the plot such was the nature of the capture-escape-capture being played out. That said, vN has enough moments to balance this – especially in its dual exploration of family life between human/vN and vN/vN families. Ashby is a talent to watch for sure, there are enough ideas packed into the book to sustain an entire universe of novels, and her prose is deft enough to overcome cumbersome technical prose. Overall though, I felt that vN ended up as too much of a mixed bag for my taste – less might be more for a future volume.

The Fiction Stroker gives vN three strokes out of five:

vN is available now from Angry Robot in physical, or e-book form.

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