So, I haven’t blogged in a while as I have been busy on other writing projects. However, I have some time, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a book I enjoyed recently, vN by Madeline Ashby.
vN refers to “von Neumann-type humanoids,” but it might be easier to think of them as replicants (if you are at all familiar with Blade Runner, that is). vN is the story of one such replicant, Amy, who is thrust from childhood to adulthood in an instant (and oh what an instant!) and whose adventures in the great wide world make up the majority of the book.
Let me back up, though. The book’s prologue begins with a focus on her human “father,” Jack, and her mother, Charlotte. It was a little difficult for me to get into, with lots of information to digest about vNs and the near-future world that vN is set in. To summarize: Amy is a clone, or iteration, of Charlotte. She will eventually be an exact physical copy, but her parents are keeping her diet controlled to keep her growing at the same rate as a normal human child, which is a controversial decision. If Amy is given enough food, she would grow into her adult form almost immediately; to keep her child-like, her parents are sort of starving her.
So where did vNs come from in this world? The answer is kind of messed up. A religious zealot created them to remain on Earth after the rapture to serve the remaining humans and make their life easier. And “serve” is true in every sense. As one character explains to Amy later in the book: “That’s why you’ve got all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin.” To ensure that vNs serve properly, they have a failsafe built in: if they see a human get hurt, they literally lose their mind and shut down. Not only that, this means that they have a built-in need to love humans and make them happy.
Yes, it is a bit sick and twisted, and much as in Blade Runner, this sets up vNs as second-class citizens, to be used and discarded as needed. Indeed, there are questions of whether or not vNs are even truly sentient, i.e., would they pass a Turing test? Jack is sure they would, but his vN wife Charlotte sometimes doubts that he is. Or is she programmed to express doubt to appear more sentient? Not even the vNs themselves are sure.
Once I got my head around the happenings in the prologue, I was able to read through the rest of the book much faster. The story is like the flip side of Blade Runner. Instead of being told from the bounty hunter’s point of view, we see the world through Amy’s eyes as she flees her hunters. Why is she being hunted? Well, it has to do with her grandmother, who is able to commit violent acts against humans. This means the built-in failsafe is not working for her, and if not for her, it might not be working for Amy either, since Amy belongs to the same clade as her grandmother. Understandably, the thought of a super-strong vN who can freely do violence to humans is something the human ruling class is fearful of, especially given the way vNs are treated.
vN is full of fantastic ideas and philosophical questions, which I enjoyed, but it is the plight of the all-too-human Amy which kept me reading in order to find out what would happen next. While vN is only Book One in The Machine Dynasty, I was satisfied with the book as a stand-alone novel (although I will definitely read any sequels). There were a few odd jumps from one scene to another in the book, but nothing I couldn’t figure out. If you like stories about artificial intelligence and the question of what it means to be a person and a human, check out vN when it is released on 7/31/12.
Note: I received vN as an e-book Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, Angry Robot Books. Why did I get an eARC? Long story short, after reading and enjoying a couple of other Angry Robot releases (Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights), I was exploring the Angry Robot website and found out about their Angry Robot Army, signed up, and was accepted. So here we are. Yes, I got the book for free. No, that doesn’t mean I am going to say I loved it if I didn’t, but in this case I actually liked vN a lot.