Science fiction and fantasy


by Madeline Ashby


VN is only 230 pages long, but like the robots it features it fits a lot into a small package. The story takes place in a world where self-replicating, self-aware humanoid robots are everywhere. These von Neumann machines are like an underclass of slaves. They have failsafes to prevent them from hurting people or allowing them to be hurt, but these make them more helpful and naive than real people, to the extent that they can't witness human suffering without it frying their circuits.

Jack Peterson is human, but he has a vN family. He an his wife Charlotte keep their daughter Amy small with the help of a special diet, so she can enjoy childhood at the same rate as her human classmates. However this leaves Amy constantly hungry.

Everything changes at Amy's end of year graduation ceremony, when her grandmother Portia turns up unexpectedly. But whilst an unwelcome human relative might show up and make a noisy scene and cause some red faces, Portia plans chaos on a much larger scale. The ensuing battle is deadly, and it leaves Amy a full-grown fugitive with a head full of corrupt programming. At this point the story switches to Amy's point of view. Then she meets Javier, a Spanish-style vN model wanted for "serial iterating", which is to say unrestrained breeding. They help each other escape the human authorities and anyone else, human or not, who wants to capture and decommission them.

It's disconcerting to see things from the point of view of a robot because it's a reminder that in a sense we are all machines. Madeline Ashby's vN are extremely lifelike, particularly when it comes to their drive to reproduce. They do this like aphids, so that both male and female models produce copies of themselves whenever they have enough food, without the need for a member of the opposite sex. They don't feel pain, but they do have a whole range of other feelings. This makes it easy to relate to them as if they were organic. Amy has been told throughout her childhood that she's just as real as other kids, but she's like Pinocchio yearning to be a real boy, she's clearly very different and people treat her as such. She and Javier increasingly cross the line between machine and living being, so that this novel becomes a discussion about what it really means to be alive.

The two of them run from place to place, hiding out in rural America and staying on the move. But Amy is afraid her wanted status will be used against her family, and there's a voice in her head telling her she's no ordinary buggy vN. There's the question of what made Portia crazy and homicidal, and whether or not Amy has gained some of her grandmother's madness. And what is wrong with her failsafes? Whilst Amy endures life on the run and battles with her wayward programming, hope takes the form of Mecha, the machine haven. She wants to go there, although it's not ideal unless she can take her friends and family to safety with her. But is Mecha what she expects it to be, or just another trap?

This is an exciting story with a lot of extraordinary images. It's the sort of book that will make a great movie. I found the transitions between dream, memory simulation and reality weren't always clearly defined, so at times it confused me. There's a bit of a love story in there, which I thought was sweet, verging on gooey. It's a bit strange to put that in, when vN don't need to get mate or pair-bond for any practical reasons, but it works. Most of all I liked the novel's thoughtfulness: it's not the twists that make it clever, although there are some good ones. It's the questions it asks about sowing the seeds of our own destruction, the right to reproduce, what it means to be human, and the creation of a new underclass. This is a book full of subtle layers and shocking visions, and it's dense with ideas.

12th August 2012

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books
Science fiction
Female Protagonist

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