vN by Madeline Ashby

July 31, 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.

When we first meet Amy she is a five-year old child living with her human father and android mother. Her accelerated growth has been stunted to mimic that of a human child using a special diet that keeps her in a state of almost constant hunger.  Everything seems idyllic in this perfect little family unit, but within a few short chapters it becomes evident that all is not as rosy as it appears from the outside. The unexpected appearance of Amy’s grandmother acts as a catalyst to events and things quickly start to spiral out of control. In one of the novel’s standout moments, Amy is transformed from a child into a young woman. This is what happens when you’re a starving self-replicating android and you eat a relative. Forced to go on the run, Amy’s world is turned upside down as she suddenly finds herself an unprepared child trapped in a grown up shell.  Somehow she manages to retain an air of innocence, but this sets her at odds with the world around her.

On her travels Amy’s constant companion is the electronic spirit/shadow of her grandmother, Portia. Concerned only with being in charge and spending all her time trying to usurp Amy’s control of her own body, Portia is literally the ghost in the machine. There are a few spectacular moments where Portia temporarily manages to wrestle ownership from Amy and these all tend to end in an explosively violent manner.

Another of my favourite moments occurs when the authorities finally capture Amy. She is forced to play a series of games in order that her captors can better understand her and the choices that she makes. This section reads almost like a physical interpretation of the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, there are a number of other reverential nods dotted throughout if you look for them, these were a nice, unexpected touch.

This novel also touches upon some interesting ideas when it comes to religion. In the near future world that Ashby’s created rather than shy away from it religious groups have embraced technology. So much so that they are the ones responsible for the advancement of androids in the first instance. It’s their reasoning behind that choice that not only offers insight but also raises some difficult questions. I have to admit, when I first picked up vN I didn’t expect to end up reading something that not only taps into the technological zeitgeist but also dissects many of the taboos that surround organized religion.

vN is a striking debut, one part tech thriller and one part adult fairy story. Amy could easily be viewed as Pinocchio’s elder sibling or perhaps the Ugly Duckling? Amy struggles to understand her place in the universe as she tries to discover what it means to be a ‘real’ girl. It’s ironic that though many view her as just a machine, Amy’s actions make her appear the most human out of all the characters in the novel. Amy genuinely cares what happens to others. In direct contrast to this, the majority of humans and other vNs that she encounters all seem to be quite self-absorbed.

Science fiction has always played around with the idea of machines that look and act like humans. Theses stories have a habit of promoting introspection on my part. What exactly does it mean to be human? What indistinguishable quality sets you aside from your fellow man? Will technology ever super-cede the human race? vN continues to explore this debate in a thoughtful and engrossing fashion. The best sci-fi not only entertains but also educates and informs, and vN manages all three effortlessly. Well worth checking out if you get the chance.

vN is published by Angry Robot Books and as available now.

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