I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!
Madeline Ashby’s vN is one of the gnarliest, most biological takes on humanoid machine intelligence that I’ve come across. What do I mean by “biological”, you ask? After all, isn’t that a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about synthetic humanoids? Take a gander at the book’s back cover copy:
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 them, young Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.
The humanoid vN of Ashby’s universe are a synthetic lifeform that grows, matures and eventually reproduces in direct proportion to how much nourishment it receives. Amy has been kept small by being fed a restricted diet of synthetic food, but as a result she’s constantly hungry. With the much larger meal of her granny onboard, she quickly matures to an adult size just as the world starts treating her like an adult: public footage of the attack reveals that in Amy, and Amy alone, the failsafe that prevents vN from harming humans has stopped working.
She finds herself on the run, from a government that wants her threat contained, from her mother’s murderous sibling androids, and from her granny, who has survived as a partition on Amy’s memory drive and emerges to fight her for control of her body and destiny.
The concept of the failsafe owes its roots to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, specifically the first one: A robot shall not harm a human, or through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. Indeed, there are many loving references to other works of robotic fiction, video games, and anime throughout the book, from Bladerunner to Silent Hill to Neon Genesis Evangelion. I found these subtle enough to be appreciable if you get the reference, without requiring it to enjoy the story.
vN is more than a referential simulacrum of geeky nostalgia, however. At its heart it is a deeply interesting and human story about what it means to truly be able to give consent and make your own choices when your very programming (or genes, social conditioning, etc.) is urging you to act, feel, and believe a certain way, and to support interests that aren’t necessarily your own.
Already read vN? Let me know what you thought in the comments!