iD: The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot, pb, £2.99
Reviewed by Matt Adcock (@cleric20)
Welcome back to an alt future where von Neumann machines (self-replicating humanoid robots) are integrated into society. Or at least they were in Maddie Ashby’s first book of this thought-provoking trilogy vN (originally released back in 2012).
For me, iD is perhaps James Cameron’s Aliens to vN’s original Alien. vN was an engaging deep dive into the nature of artificial intelligence, but with iD, she takes the established characters and world in which they function and amps up the story into a wider battle arc. And whilst the action is bigger, there are some less savoury additions that should come with a trigger warning for sexual coercion – human-looking robots are used as sex toys, even those who look like children – as well as violence that is not for the squeamish.
We pick up the plot as Javier and Amy – both von Neumann machines – have tried to find a sanctuary away from the problematic humans who want Amy dead due to her having broken the failsafe, which now allows her to kill humans. This tortured machine couple and their ‘kids’ have created ‘the island’, a semi-machine-bio habitat that Amy can manipulate telepathically.
When the island is attacked, things go south for the pair, and the future for all von Neumanns looks bleak. The story is told from Javier’s point of view and his struggle to come to terms with what happens on the island and how humans are manipulating everything through their inherent fear of what they can’t control.
The religious ramifications of the fake humans’ place in society and history make for some interesting pondering. For example, the devout Megachurch masses are angry and confused that the foretold Rapture hasn’t happened and turn their anger on their android creations/brethren.
For those who enjoy some near future ‘what if’ iD is a great read. Well researched and packed with fascinating tech elements. Where the first book was mostly Amy’s show, this time she takes a back seat to Javier, who misses out on her loving (if condensed) childhood experience – being instead of having had to fight for his existence after being abandoned by his ‘father’. Can he overcome his distrust of humans, despite not being able to physically fight back due to his programming? His skill set is more than pleasing humans sexually – reading their deepest preferences and acting out any fantasy to bring them pleasure. His inability to say ‘no’ is also explored as one baddie, in particular, uses this to their dubious advantage.
The major threat of the first book – Portia – Amy’s megalomanic grandmother who has found a way to hide in the von Neumanns, surfacing at will in some unlikely places is an ever-present danger. It is up to Javier and his children to find a way to save ungrateful humanity whilst at the same time trying to prevent the full-scale extermination of his android kin.
There is plenty of action here, but I found that it got a bit repetitive in places and was the weakest area. Javier has bionic legs that allow for incredible jumping, which is pretty much his superpower and one that is used a lot – there are a handy number of building designs with areas that only Javier’s jump can access, for example. Also, some of the plot feels a bit stretched as Javier’s quest is aided by some very fortunate plot twists. These were my only real niggles in a book that otherwise kept me rapt and eagerly lapping up the fast-paced narrative.
The Machine Dynasty books hold a lot of debt to the Robot series by Asimov and works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick but rather than simply regurgitate the lore and problems associated with share a planet with ‘fake humans’, Ashby adds to the field, and the genre is richer as a result.
The good news for fans is that there is a third book in this series, and I, for one, am looking forward to finding out where Ashby takes the von Neumann odyssey for a conclusion.