vN by Madeline Ashby
vN is Madeline Ashby’s début novel, recently released by Angry Robot Books. A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley for review purposes.
vN is set in a near future world where humanoid robots exist and have become complex enough that in some respects they are difficult to distinguish from humans. They are also able to reproduce autonomously, given sufficient food, hence the designator vN — von Neumann machine.
The back story of vN is quite interesting. They weren’t created as some sort of science or engineering experiment, but by a church that expected the rapture. The idea was, when all the good people transcended, the people left on (hell on) Earth would need someone to look after them. Enter vN. For this reason, vN were built with a fail-safe that causes them pain or malfunction if they witness a human being suffering or in pain, particularly in a violent way.
This ideas explored as a result of this are fascinating. vN have some semblance of free will, except for where interaction with humans is involved. They find themselves drawn to wanting to make humans happy, even if the humans treat them badly, the vN just can’t help themselves. Also, fair warning, some people want to have vN around for less than wholesome reasons. Paedophilia, while not central to the story, comes up a couple of times in passing.
The story is told from Amy’s point of view, a vN, and in my opinion Ashby had no trouble conveying Amy’s humanity even while she was dealing with vN aspects of her nature. Amy’s mother, the vN she looks identical to, decided to marry (albeit not legally) a human man. The opening prologue is told from Amy’s dad’s point of view while Amy is still about five years old and the size of a human five-year-old (vN grow according to how much they’re fed until they reach adulthood, then the extra food goes towards iterating a child). Amy’s kindergarten graduation ceremony is interrupted by her psychotic grandmother attacking her mother. In defence of her mother, Amy eats her grandmother and ends up with her as a partition in her memory banks (talking to her and telling her to kill people).
In the course of events, Amy finds herself on the run from the authorities and teams up with another vN, Javier. Amy, who was coddled by her loving parents, finds herself suddenly a grown up (eating her grandmother gave her a growth spurt) and forced to deal with the harsh realities of the world. The story follows her and Javier’s misadventures as they attempt to stay alive and free.
I found vN to be an interesting and fresh take on robots. Although on the surface the fail-safe might sound similar to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, the way it’s explored and the consequences we’re shown are quite different and significantly grittier than anything Asimov ever wrote. I definitely recommend this read for science fiction fans. I would also recommend it to most fantasy fans as it’s fairly low on technobabble and it’s character-driven as well as idea-driven. And anyway, the robots are advanced enough that they’re practically magic.
4 / 5 stars