Book review: ‘vN’, by Madeline Ashby

30 06 2016

Madeline Ashby is a US-born Canadian writer whose urge to write stems from a meeting with Ursula K Le Guin in a book company basement. vN, her first novel, was published in 2012 by Angry Robot. (It is, as should become apparent, a singularly appropriately named publisher for such a work.)


Amy Peterson’s parents, Jack and Charlotte, are keen that she have the most normal, the most well-rounded upbringing possible—for a given value of ‘normal’. To this end, they’ve enrolled her in a preschool for gifted children, and they’ve been conscientiously starving her so she doesn’t grow up too rapidly, nor iterate too soon. But Jack isn’t Amy’s biological father, nor is Charlotte a biological mother. Amy and Charlotte are von Neumann machines (vN), creatures of titanium, silicon skin, graphene coral, and carbon aerogel. They eat, think, and feel, much as organic humans do, but the food they eat is distinct from human food (aluminium pancakes, anyone?) and their thoughts and feelings do not follow precisely the same tracks as the humans in whose image they have been created. Nonetheless, Amy’s childhood is happy, and unexceptional, right up until that incident in her kindergarten graduation where she eats her grandmother, Portia. That last phrase, I suspect, requires some backgrounding: Portia is also vN, has just killed one of Amy’s human classmates, and is assaulting Charlotte, so Amy’s sudden ancestivorism is comprehensible as an act of defence, if not entirely orthodox. Also comprehensible, as a consequence of this turn of events, is the development that Amy finds herself a fugitive … for the murderous code by which her grandmother was programmed, indeed her grandmother’s entire personality, is now incorporated within Amy’s own memory banks. If Amy is to come to terms with her heritage, she must find out more about her past, and her mother’s upbringing—which will not be easy when everyone suddenly wants her dead.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the third book I’ve read which has explored the particular notion of the female android (the other two are the excellent and poignant Virtual Girl by Amy Thompson, who might, just possibly, be some kind of nominative godparent to Amy Peterson, and Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross). It shares with those two books (and, I don’t doubt, others which I haven’t directly encountered) an exploration, on some level, of the motivations for humans to develop anatomically correct automated replicas of human beings, but there’s a somewhat greater depth to its exploration of the human/android dynamic than either of those books: here there are both many humans and many androids, so the Venn diagram looks different. There’s also a commendable subtlety to the android/android interactions, particularly between Amy, her travelling companion and survivalist mentor Javier, and Javier’s latest iteration (offspring) Junior. While I don’t completely buy all of the implications of Ashby’s extrapolations in this direction, the portrayal is nonetheless convincing.

The strengths of vN are in its characterisation—Amy, her parents, Portia, and Javier all emerge as real people, for all that only one of the five is genuinely flesh and blood—and its attention to detail: Amy’s home environment is carefully drawn, the history of vN development is revealed bit by bit, and the responses of vNs to hunger are logically consistent: for example, to conserve precious processing power, vision is downgraded to greyscale. And, while the book makes no direct nod towards Asimov’s Law of Robotics, it does include repeated reference to the ‘failsafe’ features which are designed to ensure that vNs go into an inactive mode (‘bluescreen’) rather than commit any actions which will bring organic humans into danger. (Clearly, Portia’s failsafe mode was no longer functional during the kindergarten prizegiving incident, which means Amy’s may not be either: thus she’s seen as a menace to society.)

I did feel, at times, that the violent content within vN was too much, or perhaps too messy, for my own tastes: this is not the stylised, carefully-choreographed violence of, say, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, but something more distressingly chaotic. (Portia, it seems, is neither merciful nor squeamish. I think I generally prefer my SF to be less dark than this …) I would also say that some of the fight scenes didn’t fully convince, in part because of a descriptive looseness to some complicated scenes and in part because Ashby displays a tendency to allow Amy’s parasitic Portia persona to go all ‘evil Mary Sue’ over overwhelming opponents: for this reason, and a couple of others, there’s a shade of unearned ‘specialness’ in the characterisation of Amy which stretches credulity in places.

Is vN hard SF? I would judge that it is, because it seeks to justify its roboticism (androidicism?) with materials science which, on first brush, appears reasonable (though I feel, for example, that its appropriation of graphene as a construction material smacks more of molecular zeitgeist populism than of any directly applicable structural relevance, in much the same way fullerenes were injudiciously bandied around in the SF of two decades earlier). And its exploration of android consciousness, and of the interactions of androids with other beings, is detailed, thoughtful, and predominantly logical. But it’s a rather postmodern flavour, I think, of hard SF, that obeys the letter of the hard SF envelope while in some respects flouting its spirit (whereas Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, for example, adheres more faithfully to the spirit even while transgressing the letter in certain measures). Still, what are failsafes for, but to be broken?

(This is the sixth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF, and appears after much too long a lag after the fifth review. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. If you’d like to suggest further books which would fit the criteria — female writer, hard SF, novel / novella / collection of short fiction — please leave a comment. I have several more books lined up for review at this date; I’d like to reach 20 reviews in the series (to provide a Roman-numeral justification for the ‘XX’ alongside the chromosomal reference), though that will almost certainly take until at least sometime next year, quite possibly longer. Ideally, also, I would want to review only one book by each author, so I’d be particularly grateful to anyone uncovering ‘new’ authors for me to review. And please note the requirement for ‘hard’ SF: I’m looking for work which pays serious attention to scientific principles, rather than examples of ‘space opera’ and other subgenres of SF.)




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