vN, by Madeline Ashby

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Author’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot.

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, little 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 the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

Thoughts: Imagine that the Rapture is coming any day now! And you know that millions of people will be left behind. So instead of preaching hell at them every day, instead you work hard on realistic robots, create fully functioning AI, and tell people that these will be the ones to look after you when everyone’s gone home to God.

Welcome to the inspiration behind the vN robots.

Madeline Ashby cannot be praised enough for the creative and disturbing future she plays with in this novel. The vN machines are quite interesting on their own. Their rate of maturity depends on how much they eat. They can interact with humans, grow up, fall in love, get jobs. It seems great, on the surface. But then you get hive-mind concepts going (where it’s better to destroy a few dissenters in the fight for the common cause), pedophilia (it’s okay to give in to those urges when you’re screwing child robots), and a dozen and one other concepts that can rock the reader back and really make them think. More than once I had to put this book down for a moment to really take in what was being said, and to reflect on it and appreciate it properly. You can read through vN without doing that, though, which I think will only put it in a prime position to be reread later and enjoyed all the more.

Amy’s story is a fascinating one. Starting off as a child vN, she goes on a massive journey of self-discovery after, well, eating her grandmother and rapidly maturing. Unfortunately, Granny’s mind gets stuck in the back of Amy’s head, making for some interesting commentary along the way. Amy’s journey is an incredible reflection of the growing up that people do. Sheltered and innocent at first, but as you go on, you learn more about the world and the myriad ways in which it’s dark, terrifying, and you can’t unsee what you have seen. From witnessing the birth — or iteration — of another vN, to the death of her mother, to discovering that her model is flawed, and the realization that most people are out for themselves, Amy goes through a sped-up maturation process in more ways than just the physical. This, I think, is what will captivate many readers, who are likely to see aspects of their own life’s journey reflected in Amy’s struggles.

The characters were a truly compelling set, too, though with few exceptions, they didn’t feel autonomous so much as they felt like complements to Amy’s life. People show up, serve their purpose, and either move on or stick around to fulfill another purpose. They were interesting and well-developped, to be sure, but with the exception of Javier, they felt very much like stepping stones, plot devices rather than people in their own right. But in spite of that, they were still well-written and interesting to see develop and act on the events around them.

The only part of this book that really bothered me was the ending. While it did make perfect sense to me, and there were little signs of it peppered throughout the book that made everything tie together nicely, it still felt a bit over the top to me. It’s a bit of a mental stretch to start a book knowing that you’re reading sci-fi involving robots, and then in the end discover that everything changes thanks in part to a sea monster. Who, in fairness, is really an evolved cluster of early vN machines itself, but it still felt very much like Ashby was struggling to find a way to top everything that had come before in her book. Even though it made sense in the context of the world she created, it still felt very much out of place, and even the writing at that time started to get a bit rushed and distanced.

But up to that point, everything in this novel was a delight to read. This is a true gem of science fiction, and a good speculative piece on society and maturity. It was dark without being too cynical, ominous without being preachy. I can say without a doubt that Ashby is an author I’ll be keeping my eye on, because if she keeps turning out more books like this, I’m definitely interested in reading them!

(Provided for review by Angry Robot Books via Netgalley.)

4 comments on “vN, by Madeline Ashby

    • What, specifically, is called a von Neumann probe? The vN’s of the novel are usually just called vN’s, and aren’t referred to as probes. A little research tells me that von Neumann probes are self-replicating machines and undoubtedly provided a major source of inspiration for the novel, but that still leaves me a little confused as to what you’re referring to in your comment.

  1. I felt the same way. Brilliant idea, great characters, weird ending. Ashby is working on a 2nd book in the series, so perhaps that ending had to happen, so something else bigger can happen in a future novel? (that’s my hope, at least)

  2. Pingback: iD, by Madeline Ashby | Bibliotropic

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