Book Review: vN by Madeline Ashby (series, #1)
Amy is 5 year old robot. An exact replica–iteration–of her mother, who is in a relationship with a human male. Her parents are restricting her food to raise her slowly at a human child’s pace instead of at a robot’s. But when her grandmother shows up to her kindergarten graduation and threatens her mother, things go haywire. It quickly becomes apparent that the failsafe that makes robots love humans innately and makes them incapable of withstanding seeing violence against humans has failed to activate in Amy. She finds herself full-grown and on the run from humans and her robot aunts alike as she struggles to figure out who she is and what her existence means to humanity.
Artificial Intelligence/Robot books tend to take a bit more to draw me in than say a zombie book. It’s really hard to do AI in a way that is simultaneously scientifically/culturally believable and unique. Frankly, I need a bit more believability in an AI book than in a zombie one, since AI is real science. Plus, the book should examine their cultural place in the world, and that needs to be believable. I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right. It’s enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.
The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator). A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus’ Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help. Clearly, the Second Coming didn’t happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry. As a character says to Amy:
There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you. (location 1944)
This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I’ve seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary. The Von Neumanns originated as a religious experiment, were swiped by the military and the porn industry, and became a part of everyday life. It’s just an awesome origin story for the world that Amy is in.
The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional. Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time. No one is presented as pure evil or good.
The plot is similarly complex. There’s a lot going on in Amy’s world, and none of it is predictable. What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing? Is it a natural progression that it doesn’t work in Amy? What about how Amy’s mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them? Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning? And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann’s? For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them. Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine? The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.
What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting. Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape? Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or “programming”? Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices. Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family? All of these questions lead to some interesting stand-offs, one of which includes my favorite quote of the book:
An iteration isn’t a copy, Mother. It’s just the latest version. I’m your upgrade. That’s why I did what I did. Because I’m just better than you. (location 2581)
All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me. First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn’t jibe with the story for me. I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren’t ones that generally work for me. Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot’s boobs don’t move. This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not. This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously. I’m sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs. Their boobs would bounce, dammit. This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements. It simply wasn’t a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.
Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family. Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you’re an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.
4 out of 5 stars