vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

New Reflections

If you enjoyed the excerpt from the interview with Diana Wynne Jones which appeared in Vector #268, then you may be interested to know that the volume in which the full interview appears, Reflections, will be published in the next few weeks from David Fickling Books.

Early copies may be available this weekend at the celebration of DWJ’s life and works being held this Sunday, 22 April at 2pm, at St. George’s in Brandon Hill, Bristol. Details of how to get to the venue are available here.

Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

2012 Arthur C Clarke Award Submissions

At long last, the submissions list for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award is out!

Torque Control and the BSFA are again delighted to be hosting a competition in conjunction with the release of the submissions list, to guess the short list. The winner will received copies of all the shortlisted books, due to be announced at the end of March. For full details – and to enter the contest – see the separate contest details post.

This year, the five members of the jury read 60 books from 25 imprints in order to narrow it down to whatever their shortlist is going to be. That’s slightly greater participation – and slightly more work for the jury – than last year, when 54 novels were submitted by 22 imprints.

Submissions include four past winners (Ian R. MacLeod, China Miéville, Christopher Priest and Neal Stephenson) as well as ten authors who have previously been shortlisted (Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, James Lovegrove, Adam Roberts, Justina Robson, Sherri S. Tepper, Charles Stross, Connie Willis and Chris Wooding).

Note that this is a submissions list, of the books submitted by their imprints, for consideration by the judges. It is a not a longlist.

Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot)
Dead of Veridon by Tim Akers (Solaris)
The Departure by Neal Asher (Tor UK)
Novahead by Steve Aylett (Scar Garden)
Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear (Gollancz)
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown (Solaris)
The Great Lover by Michael Cisco (Chomu Books)
Random Walk by Alexandra Claire (Gomer)
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
Sequence by Adrian Dawson (Last Passage)
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (Canongate)
The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan (Gollancz)
Gods of Manhattan by Al Ewing (Abaddon Books)
Bringer of Light by Jaine Fenn (Gollancz)
Final Days by Gary Gibson (Tor UK)
Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer&Michael Cassutt (Tor UK)
The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
The Last Four Things by Paul Hoffman (Michael Joseph)
Dead Water by Simon Ings (Corvus)
The Ironclad Prophecy by Pat Kelleher (Abaddon Books)
11.22.63 by StephenKing (Hodder and Stoughton)
Shift by Tim Kring and Dale Peck (Bantam)
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (NewconPress)
Echo City by Tim Lebbon (Orbit)
Nemonymous Nights by D.F. Lewis (Chomu Books)
The Age of Odin by JamesLovegrove (Solaris)
Wake Up and Dream by Ian R. MacLeod (PS)
The End Specialist by Drew Magary (HarperVoyager)
Germline by T.C. McCarthy (Orbit)
Savage City by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
Equations of Life by Simon Morden (Orbit)
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Picador)
Hell Ship by Philip Palmer (Orbit)
The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)
The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky (Hodder and Stoughton)
The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
Here Comes The Nice by Jeremy Reed (Chomu Books)
The Demi Monde: Winter by Rod Rees (Jo Fletcher Books)
by Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Down to the Bone by Justina Robson (Gollancz)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
Regicide by Nicholas Royle (Solaris)
Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer (Gollancz)
War in Heaven by Gavin Smith (Gollancz)
Reamde by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)
Rule 34 by Charles Stross (Orbit)
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hodder and Stoughton)
The Waters Rising by Sherri S. Tepper (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS)
Dust by Joan Frances Turner (Berkley UK)
The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (Solaris)
Zone One by Colson Whitehead (Harvill Secker)
All Clear by Connie Willis (Gollancz)
Blackout by Connie Willis (Gollancz)
Son of Heaven by David Wingrove (Corvus)
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador)
The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

The shortlist will be announced in late March, and the 2012 Clarke Award winner on Wednesday, May 2nd, at the SCI-FI London Film Festival. The winner will receive a cash prize of £2012 and a commemorative trophy bookend.

What do you think of the submissions list? Any titles you wish were under consideration for this year’s Clarke Award but aren’t?

If you’d like to guess and potentially win the award’s shortlist this year, see the contest details post. Guesses posted in the comments to this post may be good for conversation, but won’t be eligible entries for the contest.

Lavinia, Part 2: Audience

Lavinia is one of the most recent installations in a long history of what is, in effect, Aeneid-related fan fiction. It was a particularly popular topic for authors in the seventeenth and eighteen century, when the well-educated were quite likely to have read it in Latin as part of their education. The ancient Latin work spawned a slew of elaborators and continuations, best know of which is Purcell’s opera, written about Dido and Aeneas.

Indeed, one of my own extremely rare forays into fan art was when a friend at university asked me to draw a series of small images of Aeneas and his escape from Troy. The images were quite tiny and in watercolour pencil, so barely more than stick figures at that scale. Further, I hadn’t read the Aeneid yet, so relied entirely on my friend’s description of each of eight or nine scenes. That’s how I first met Ascanius and Aeneas and their household Lares, the house gods they saved from Troy, and which find their home, ultimately, with Lavinia in Le Guin’s novel. In Lavinia, Aeneas’ first point of personal commitment to the title character is in entrusting her with their care; and one of the few moments proposed as potentially-supernatural intervention occurs when the Lares move themselves back to her custody.

I’m sure other Aeneid-related works are still being produced, if not so many as in their heyday. Certainly Troy-related works have been going strong lately, if more focused on the Trojan War itself than its aftermath. Equally certain is how well known the stories of Troy are, from their related epics to the ongoing archeological investigations into the history of a city long-since defunct. It’s as inspiring as Atlantis.* Just the other day in Paris, I saw a Trojan dog in the window of some upscale mass-market clothing store, big enough for at least three people.

So the stories generally are known. But how well is the Aeneid in particular known these days among those who haven’t studied Latin? I wonder, not in terms of judging whatever count as “reading the classics”, but in term of who the target audience for Lavinia might be. And does knowing the source material even matter?

My copy of the book is printed in a nice, clear, big font, which leaves me wondering if it was marketed – as many of Le Guin’s books have been – as that relatively-recent classification, Young Adult fiction. The story does deal with a young woman coming of age. How accessible would this book be to someone with no background in Aeneid, whether or not they were a teenager? The story itself provides a summary, in effect, of the last three books of the Aeneid, plus quite a big of its contextual background, but equally the book is written in conscious dialogue with the poem and its poet, who himself appears as an influential character in the book. Lavinia herself tells the reader that her very existence is contingent on his having told of her having been.

Le Guin’s books often deal with historically-rich civilizations, burdened from and benefitting from their layers of past. Might that mean her books would intrinsically appeal to readers with a greater historical consciousness and interest? Or perhaps it is largely through partially-derivative works like this that audiences are most familiar with the Aeneid these days, if at all?

I first read Lavinia specifically because it had been nominated for the BSFA Award for best novel of 2009. Le Guin is, of course, one of the most important authors of science fiction and fantasy; but is this book even targeted at readers of those genres? (I’ll consider the degree to which it even is science fiction in my next post.)

It’s a Le Guin book, and a good and well-reviewed book, so of course it sold at least moderately well. It’s been published at least in the US, the UK, and Japan, and had both hardback and paperback editions; but who is the book’s audience?

* I was recently looking through a brochure of things to do while in Dubai. It includes a theme park devoted to how the residents of Atlantis might have lived.

Lavinia, Part 1: Voice and Identity

Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia is the story of an identity, and of permutations of “I”.

The book begins with the word “I”, and, as throughout, the reader sees this world through the eyes of the titular Lavinia:

I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal.

Lavinia was a minor figure in Vergil’s Aeneid, a voiceless treaty-bride to his hero Aeneas once he finally settles in Italy and metaphorically plants the seeds which will grow into the city and empire of Rome. Vergil had little enough to say about the young woman, and, as Le Guin’s Lavinia tells us, much of what little he said was cliché rather than accurately descriptive.

The Lavinia of the novel is a voice of several parts. The primary story is that of her more distant past, growing up in Latium, learning the rituals of worship which structure her experience of time, and encountering Aeneas, first through prophecy, then from afar, later through treaties, and finally as his bride. Interludes tell us of a later past, her time happily married with Aeneas, in the three brief years they have together – as she knows and he does not. The framing narrative is the mystery of her voice, that she has one at all, for Vergil, her poet, did not give her one in his poem.

Vergil narrated her into existence, she tells us, in turn recursively narrating his existence in to her story. He appears in her story as a time-traveler in the dreams of his death bed. He meets her that way for the first time, when it is far too late to include her properly in the poem he has already written in his own time; Lavinia, and how badly he misrepresented her that poem, become sone of his dying regrets.

Their conversations cast a long shadow over the playing out of the book’s events; his descriptions of what will happen to Aeneas and what is shown on his shield shape Lavinia’s life for the next three years, and, ultimately, leave her with the difficulty of going on after his effectively-prophetic tellings have concluded. Vergil can tell her of the future glories of Rome, but not of what might happen to her once Aeneas has died. She tells us she is contingent, existing only because of Vergil’s telling of her; and yet, she must find most of her life and the degrees of her existence for herself, because he did not know them. When the contents of the poem have finished working themselves out in her life, she tells her readers that she “has lost my guide, my Vergil.” That “I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world”. (p. 183)

The end of the Aeneid is not the end of Lavinia, since the whole point, the whole argument, of the book is that she has her own life; by inference, so too does any tertiary character, especially any given woman in a story of antiquity. The rest of the book is a meditation on finding identity amongst political and social conflict.

By the end, the “I”s have multiplied from what seemed to be the simple voice of telling with which the book began; in the the “I”s of the ending, there is the English word for first-person nominative identity but in them too is also the last externally-structuring words Lavinia has – the Latin command to “go”. To go on.

And so, in her own way, she does.

Looking ahead

We’ve gotten a bit behind with plans here at Torque Control. I’ve had a busy end-of-semester, and Niall and Tony both ended up over-committed, which is why you haven’t seen the end (or in one case, beginning) of discussions of Farthing and The Carhullan Army. I can’t tell you when those posts will be along, but I can tell you the following…

I have a special preview of the next Vector for you tomorrow. The issue itself was as waylaid as this blog, but you should still have it before the end of January. In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be posting an article which will appear in the print issue when it comes out, but which you really need to read much sooner than that: Andrew Butler’s writeup of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which is currently at the Tate in London, but closes January 15th.

Next week, I’ll be posting on Lavinia.

Then, two weeks later, in January, I’ll post about Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit. Shortly after which, you should be receiving the next BSFA mailing, about which much more anon.

End-of-the-year books

The best-of-2011 lists are coming out and, as every year, they make me feel sorry for any book published in the last few weeks of the calendar year. They don’t make it onto best-of lists published before the year is over. They’re out after the brightest glow of holiday-season publicity. As a result, they don’t do as well on awards lists.

From Locus: New Books Dec 6, Dec 13, Dec 20. (Post by week received, so not all December books.) Here are some of December’s, listed by Kirkus. Here are some of the fantasy novels out this month, by date.

There’s work there from Emma Bull, Connie Willis, Bruce Sterling, Rob Sawyer, and the BSFA’s own Ian Whates. For non-fiction, there’s Jessica Langer’s Postcolonialism and Science Fiction in the UK (out in Jan 2012 in the US).

Which December books do you think need a higher profile than they might otherwise receive? Which of these do you most hope won’t be overshadowed by being left off of the end-of-year profusion of best-of lists?

Preorderable Reflections

If you enjoyed the excerpt from the interview with Diana Wynne Jones in the most recent Vector, you might like to know that the volume which will contain the entire interview is now available for pre-order (Amazon UK; Waterstones; Foyles). Reflections is a collection of essays and transcripts of convention speeches written and selected by Diana. But it’s not out until May.

Coming up: Lavinia

Next up in reading the Future Classics is a novel set in ancient Latium.

For November, what’s left of it, I’ll be looking at Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of part of the Aeneid from the perspective of a character who, in the original, has no lines. The book was contentious as science fiction at the time: does it even count as part of that genre? Whether or not it does – we’ll reconsider the arguments – it’s certainly a fascinating and admirable book. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Lavinia was published in 2008 (meaning we’ve skipped 2007). In that year, Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, the island of Sark lost its distinction for preserving feudalism, the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and the Large Hadron Collider was officially opened. Arthur C Clarke died, and Terry Pratchett announced that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The BSFA began its experiment with running Matrix as an online magazine.

I can promise you a discussion of Lavinia before the end of the month. I’ll be posting on it starting a week from today.

P.S. These year recaps paid off at the BristolCon quiz for me, when, thanks to doing them, I knew in which year Pluto lost its planetary status.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers