Madeline Ashby has been kicking around SF all of her life, and she has published a number of stories. Her first novel, VN, concerns self-replicating androids in a near-future world.
Most SF fans know Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Ashby wonders if such laws would be properly regarded as a form of slavery. Wait, what’s the origin of the term “robot?”
Author: Madeline Ashby
Original Publication Date: 2012
Amy’s body remained very still, but her mind raced. They were going to kill her. She didn’t know why. She had been trying to help. Her granny had been hurting people and Amy had stopped it. Maybe that was the problem—- maybe her granny had belonged to somebody important, and Amy had eaten her. That wasn’t her fault, either: she’d only meant to bite her, but Amy’s diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime’s worth, hot as bitter tears. (39)
In the near future, self-replicating robots, VanNeumans, have tenuously integrated with society. Amy lives with her mother (of whom she is an interation) and her human father; a specialized diet keeps her aging at the rate of a human child.
All of this changes at her kindergarten graduation, when her failsafe fails to work, and she consumes her grandmother, a VN with a revolutionary view of a robot’s place in society.
Sentience is not freedom, Portia said. Real freedom is the ability to say no (181).
Granny Portia considers the failsafe requiring VNs to protect humans a dangerous “flaw” that makes robots “turn on each other before” they would ever turn on those who oppress and exploit them (182). This paradigm must be striking some people as very familiar. The difficulties and dilemmas faced by the VNs reflect on real-life issues of discrimination, marginalization, and colonization. Gender issues, in particular, come to the forefront, though not as a one-to-one allegory. The novel also asks whether the disenfranchised and the discriminated should aspire to be like the dominant group.
VN also explores issues surrounding identity and determinism. To what extent are we programmed beings? Are our smiles, like those of a robot, “just plug-ins performing a subroutine for socially relevant nonverbal communication”(118)? Are human emotions just “hormones having a keg party”(119)? Do we have consciousness and self-determination as we like to believe?
All of this could become pretentious polemic rather than a thoughtful novel, but Ashby has a story to tell, and the issues, while central, never overwhelm the book. VN features an intriguing origin and, despite some narrative gaps, it held my attention.
I really love the edges of ideas in SF, the ways in which the speculative technologies and histories touch and shape the story. However, I also like to experience, as fully as possible, the world in which the story takes places. Despite significant backstory (nicely integrated throughout the novel), I never quite understood how the VN androids integrated with humans across society, nor why the events in which our protagonist becomes involved don’t set off widespread panic.
I also felt that the description, in some instances, did not clearly establish the various settings. Ashby has imagined an interesting world, but she does not consistently bring us into that world.
Originality: 3/6. Like a lot of contemporary SF writers, Ashby knows that her basic ideas have been addressed before and deliberately pays homage to her predecessors. While much of this novel feels derivative, the author nevertheless takes the challenges presented by artificial intelligence in some interesting directions. At this point, I’m impressed when an author can do anything remotely original with AI.
Story: 5/6 The story contains some abrupt shifts of direction, but they make sense in context, and VN reaches a kind of resolution, unlike many books that try to set up a series.
Characterization: 4/6. I developed a genuine affection for Amy and an understanding of the secondary personality she carries. Her experiences change her, though her dialogue changes less than I would have expected. Dialogue overall seems very similar, both within robotic clades (where I would expect it) and among most characters we encounter.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6. Ashby’s writing often takes humorous and satiric slants, and the occasional nerd allusion-as-in-joke shouldn’t keep anyone from following the story.
The ending may leave some readers cold, but it contains some of the best writing in the book.
Overall Score: 5/6.
In total, VN receives 31/42