vN by Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Matt Adcock
I’m late to the vN party – a world where von Neumann machines (self-replicating humanoid robots) are integrated into society. It’s a superb conceit, and Ashby writes with a superb balance of detailed world-building, quality character development and page-turning excitement.
This is Amy’s story. She looks about 5 years old, but that is only because her ‘parents’ have been carefully limiting the amount of vN food she is allowed. As a von Neumann you see, Amy might look like a human child, but she’s far more than that. For her five years of existence, she has been developed slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. When her android mother’s past crashes into Amy’s reality, her world is torn apart – much in the same way that she tears her attacker apart. But this wasn’t supposed to happen, vNs are fitted with an Asimov-like failsafe so that they cannot attack others, especially humans.
Once freed from her restraining failsafe that stops robots from harming humans Amy must go on the run as there are many out there who want her, some to use as potential as a weapon, others who deem that she must be destroyed.
vN is the first in the ‘Machine Dynasty’ trilogy – and makes a bold and engaging debut that takes many of the ‘what ifs’ seeded by writers like Philp K Dick and runs with them into new uncharted territory. Ashby takes the notion of what it means to be human and runs it through a delicious interface of philosophy, mixes in some horror and finishes it off with a turbo-charged dose of adventure. What we have here then is a wonderful mash-up ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Terminator or Hardware’ with some ‘A.I.’ sensibility running through the fast-paced narrative.
As the build-up to a human/robot battle that will rage around Amy, we are thrown metaphysical quandaries like what actually constitutes a family and can machines replicate human emotions such as love and respect? This is a novel packed with rich ideas, which Ashby streams into your consciousness without pause. The plot cracks along at a frenetic speed, if they make a film of this, it will be loaded with blink, and you’ll miss it points.
Amy makes for a fascinating protagonist, and her very ‘non-human-ness’ is well presented, it’s almost as if we as readers can never really know her due to her alternative machine nature. Ashby deep dives into the nature of artificial intelligence, and the book feels well researched in its scientific jumping-off points.
I particularly liked the exploration of what it might mean for an android to be ‘possessed’ and controlled by another intelligence. There is a fun scene where a doctor shouts ‘the power of Christ compels you’ at Amy when trying unsuccessfully to rid her mind of an interloper – there are some fun pop-culture Easter Eggs like this scatters through the book. Plus Ashby has a character wear an ancient Pixies t-shirt at one point which I have to salute. The plot point of carrying your enemy in the circuitry of our own head is a great device too, which makes for some killer dialogue between Amy and her enemy Portia.
Are there any weak points? No many to be honest, vN arrives for this re-issue tie in to go with the final part of the trilogy (review forthcoming) as a cohesive and absorbing read. I’m a sucker for a book that can deliver both the start of an ongoing story but be a strong stand-alone read too.
So if you’ve a hankering for a sci-fi that will make you think about deep and profound concepts whilst at the same time throwing a gnawing mass of robo-zombies at your senses, vN is the book you’re looking for. A tasty fusion of fresh ideas shot through with a cool cyberpunk vibe.