vN, Madeline Ashby
Author: Madeline Ashby
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Publication date: 2nd August 2012
What if we could build humanoid companions? Would we vanquish loneliness? Or would people treat human-humanoid relationships the way mixed race and same sex relationships have been and are viewed?
What if superintelligence turned on us?
For someone who is not especially clued up on sci-fi past the odd Doctor Who episode, I never thought I’d end up being engrossed by a novel that asks these questions. Yet Madeline Ashby has created a debut novel that deals wisely and warmly with our fears of a technological future.
Amy and her mother Charlotte are von Neumann humanoids; they can multiply (known as “iterating”) and heal themselves. Each set or “clade” of vNs has certain abilities (such as photosynthesis, or climbing). Amy and Charlotte live with Amy’s human father in an uneasy futuristic America. Charlotte’s malfunctioning vN mother, Portia, breaks into Amy’s school and attacks Charlotte, killing a small boy in the process. Amy devours Portia in order to stop her doing more harm – in doing this, she stores Portia’s data on her own memory drive.
However, Portia’s error is that her “failsafe” has broken – and that means the command not to harm humans is not a part of her make-up any longer. Amy goes on the run and finds that different organisations want to use her as a weapon, want her unique flaw, or simply want her dead.
This is a brave book that does an admirable job of filling in the possible “What ifs” of a future where technology is built into everything. Madeline Ashby tackles issues such as family ties, the nature/nurture debate and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence with enthusiasm. Her creative imagery fabricates a world that is very much her own: when reading, you believe the prejudice and the terror that some of the humans are feeling.
This notion of a time when robots can be either cherished or easily discarded is gripping. Amy’s stunted growth means that she sees things differently to other vNs – her naivety is tragic but winnng. Watching her forge relationships by herself is, at times, very tense. She is a protagonist readers can really root for.
Sometimes the technical jargon gets in the way, particularly at the beginning of the book. You do get past this, however, and the language soon becomes familiar. My main issue with the book is a section that deals with a flashback of Portia’s: this seemed disjointed and jars the flow of the book. It perhaps would have been better to form a separate novel out of that (I actually hope there will be – Portia’s a terrific character with a surprisingly complex background).
By the end, vN has worked a satisfying tale from an imaginative premise. Ashby does a good job of immersing the reader in her vision of the future, through strong images and well-written prose. Overall, it’s a gripping read – check it out, even if (and maybe especially) if you’re not a sci-fi reader.