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.

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