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Book Review: iD by Madeline Ashby (Series, #2)

Person's face surrounded by variosu pieces of technology.Summary:
Javier is a vN. A self-replicating humanoid robot built by fundamentalist Christians to help humanity left behind after the rapture but then bought out and sold by a secular organization after the Christian company failed.  He was living on an island run by his powerful vN girlfriend, Amy.  Free from all humans and therefore free from the failsafe that makes him avoid harming them at all costs.  He wants his failsafe-free girlfriend to free him from his own, but she refuses.  So when a human shows up on the island and activates his failsafe, everything comes crashing down around him.  Now he’s on a race to save Amy….and destroy his failsafe.

Review:
I was really excited for the second book in this series about ai written by a woman author.  I love getting to see scifi topics like ai explored from a woman’s perspective.  So I was a bit disappointed to have the story shift focus from a woman in the first book (Amy) to a man in the second (Javier).

Ripping Amy out from under us is an interesting choice.  On the one hand, I appreciate series that switch perspectives like this because we get to see more of the world of the novel and gain a clearer understanding of it.  On the other hand, part of why I liked the series to begin with was that we were seeing a powerful female robot for once.  So I was skeptical about this choice at first.  Ultimately, however, the perspective switch worked for me because it basically is following the hero’s sidekick when the hero is decommissioned.  It’s still interesting to see the gender swap happening in the sidekick.  It’s also interesting because although Javier is male, he’s also a robot with a failsafe, so he is more akin to an enslaved person than to a humanoid free male.  It’s interesting but it saddens me that this perspective makes it seem like things like trading sex for travel are the only options for people in that situation.  Sex is power, yes, but it’s not the only tool women have available to them.  I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that the book seems to be saying that anyone in that situation, regardless of gender, would use these resources because they have to.  I can see not having a lot of choices. And I can understand having to choose to do something you don’t morally want to do because the end result is so needed.  But I would expect to see a lot of soul searching and thought process behind that choice because it is still a choice.  Javier doesn’t seem to do much choosing or thinking, and I think that’s not a fair representation of what it actually is like to be a woman.  We still have choices, and because it’s not always easy to do precisely what we want to do, what choice we make takes more thoughtfulness, if anything. There’s not always a good choice available. But there are always choices.  I would like to have seen Javier doing more thinking and choosing between different difficult choices rather than seeing himself as having to do X to get to Z.

The world building is still strong in this book.  Instead of being stuck on an island for the whole time, the events in the beginning of the book allow us to see much of the world, not just America, through the eyes of Javier.  There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of confusion in the world at this time so it’s difficult to understand precisely what is going on or how the world got to this place.  I believe this is just the situation that is typical of a second book in a series (or the third book in the trilogy), so I expect a lot of the confusion to clear up in the third book.  If anything the mystery increased with this book, which is not a bad thing.

Overall, this book builds further on the world presented in vN through the eyes of Amy’s male sidekick, Javier.  Some of the precise effects of the gender swapping and queering of gender in the robots isn’t as well thought-out as it could be but this does not detract from the interesting perspective on artificial intelligence presented by Ashby.  Fans of the first book should hold out beyond the first couple of chapters and give Javier a chance as our guide through the world.  The perspective he brings is still unique to the world of ai scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
vN, review

Book Review: vN by Madeline Ashby (series, #1)

A white woman's face surrounded by machine parts.Summary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: NetGalley

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