Today, I’ll be continuing Sci-Fi Month with a review of vN, by the American-born Canadian SF author Madeline Ashby.
vN is the first novel in the Machine Dynasty trilogy, published in 2012 by Angry Robot Books; the second book iD, was released this year and the third, Rev, as revealed this week, will be released in 2015.
So what’s vN all about?
The setting is the West Coast of the United States, in the mid-21st century. Humans co-exist alongside vN – von Neumann machines – self-replicating humanoid robots. Originally designed by a megachurch to help people left behind after the inevitable Rapture, the vN have been repurposed to serve all kinds of human needs from nursing to teaching to service industry jobs.
vN are composed of flexible materials that can absorb metals and specially-prepared food, and can regenerate damaged parts with relative ease. Once a vN has grown to an adult size and has consumed enough food – usually within a year – they give birth, or “iterate” an identical version of themselves.
To ensure that they get along with humans, vN have been programmed with a “fail-safe” – similar to Asimov’s Three Laws – that causes the vN to be physically unable to watch or inflict pain upon human beings without their programming beginning to corrupt and fail.
It’s into this scenario that Ashby introduces us to the protagonist, Amy Peterson. Amy is a vN child, about five years old, daughter of Charlotte – a vN woman with a troubled childhood – and her human father, Jack. While most vN would have grown and have iterated multiple times by Amy’s age, Charlotte and Jack, wanting to have Amy grow up with a normal childhood, have kept her on a special diet to ensure that she grows at the same rate as a human child.
Everything changes during Amy’s kindergarten graduation when Amy’s estranged and psychotic grandmother Portia arrives. Portia kills one of Amy’s classmates and Charlotte begins a violent struggle to subdue her mother. During the chaos, Amy rushes onstage to save her mother, and in a chilling moment – without thinking – Amy consumes her grandmother and absorbs her into her body.
Now fully grown, Amy is on the run from humans eager to catch her, because now she is a unique vN, one that poses a threat to humanity and the world around her; she is a vN with a malfunctioning fail-safe.
Trying to reunite with her parents who have been taken into custody, she teams up with a forestry-model vN named Javier to escape from her pursuers and deal with her unique nature, which includes her grandmother’s inescapable essence still inside of her, a frighteningly dark force which can take control of her at any moment with horrifying consequences…
By the time you finish this book, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a wild ride through a plausible future. vN has an absorbing, page-turning nature and touches on issues of love, free will, and the possibilities of robot consciousness. Ashby portrays vN physiology with the same realism as human physiology, allowing the reader an intimate connection to the vN; the reader feels strongly for vN and their unique viewpoints.
While a thrilling read, there are still loose threads about the ultimate background and motivation of some of the characters and events in this book, but as this is only the first of a planned trilogy, I’m sure they will be touched on in the future books.
You should know that vN is not for the faint of heart; robot cannibalism is just the beginning of a weird and disturbing trip with haunting images and characters that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.