vN by Madeline Ashby

By | August 15, 2012

Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot.

For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

 

vN 1 is an interesting book, exploring the nature of sentience and the ethics of inbuilt slavery and rebellion against your role in life.

If that’s making you go ‘Oh, no thanks, I just wanted to read a story’, well you don’t need to worry about that. It’s also a very good book.

Amy is a vN, a humanoid robot capable of self-replication. In an effort to help her grow up as a ‘normal’ child, her parents – her human father and her identical, vN mother – have her on a diet designed to slow her growth. Thanks to this choice, when her malfunctioning grandmother attacks her school, she eats her. And in doing so, she absorbs her grandmother, personality and all. A sereis of events leads her to realise that she can absorb the programming of any vN through consuming them. She’s a new breed, and her failsafe, the thing that prevents her from harming humans no longer works.

And there are other vNs that want to be able to do the same.

The book is a slow starter. I was a good 20% of the way in before I started caring about the plot or the characters, and I was actually considering giving up and calling this a DNF review. But then, around that mark something changed. The stakes got higher, or I connected with Amys character a little more, I don’t know. All I know is I stayed up till 1 am to get to the half way point, and then finished it off in one sprint the following morning.

It’s powerful. It really is. vN discusses slavery, the future of robotics, the nature of humanity and sentience and does so without preaching or lecturing. It merely tells you a story and lets you come to your own conclusions about the theories it advances.  Parallels are drawn between the fate of the vN and the fate of other opressed peoples within society. You’ll end up feeling sympathy for the ‘bad guys’ and maybe even rooting for them. They’re sentient: shouldn’t they be able to protect themselves and others from harm? Should their programming force them to love humans even when the human is a monster? Shouldn’t they have that free choice?

It’s not really a high-action piece. It has action scenes, but the tone and feel is thoughful and considering. For much of the book Amy is mentally a little girl discovering that the limitations she thought she had aren’t real, and that leads to an almost philosophical style to the narrative. Ashby is a capable writer, her prose effective and competent, but rarely lyrical or beautiful.

Perhaps it’s not, strictly speaking, apocalyptic, but the back story of how the vN were created is close enough for me, and the fact that it’s a series indicates that it may go somewhere dystopian or apocalyptic later, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

I strongly recommend picking up this book.

And I have to admit I enjoyed the irony of a book about angry robots being published by Angry Robot.

You can buy your copy (available in print or as an eBook) by clicking here.

Rating: ★★★★½

  1. provided free by Angry Robot. Full disclosure, I am a member of the Robot Army, making me an official reviewer for the company.

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