Madeline Ashby – vN

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 her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her family history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has itself failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

I’ve started and restarted this review about a half-dozen times. Not because I don’t have anything to say about vN, because I assuredly do – when do I not? – but rather because I don’t know where to start. There is so much to say about vN, from the characters to the basic premise, to the writing and the power of the story, it’s hard to begin. So I’ll jump in at the shallow end, my shallow end, and comment on the gorgeous cover. I’d already read the blurb for vN and I thought it sounded rather interesting and then I saw the cover and I knew I wanted to read it. How gorgeous is that cover?

The premise of vN, that of a humanoid robot whose fail safe against harming humans fails and her flight and consequent search for her identity and a place of safety, was intriguing from the get-go. The idea and execution of the von Neumann machines is amazing and utterly enthralling. I fell in love with their idea of self-replication, or iteration as it is called in the book. The fact that they are born with certain in-born traits and abilities, but can and will be taught other skills by their parent, plays with the idea of nature versus nurture. vN’s aren’t born as blank slates, they have certain things, such as their mother tongue or special vocational skills, programmed in, but have to be taught certain other facts of life, such as the failsafe. For the children from a human/vN relationship this means that a lot of their character can be imprinted not just by the vN parent, but by the human parent as well. However, the question remains whether vN children can develop their own characteristic regardless of programming and parenting, a question which I had to ask myself several times about Amy’s development. Because Amy is definitely more than the sum of her parts, both physically and mentally. At the same time there is a strange dichotomy between a vN’s age, their physical appearance and their mental development. A vN can be kept from maturing physically through a rigorous diet, which pretty much amounts to starvation, so they can look like a seven-year old and actually be over fifty. In the same vein, if continuously fed to satiation a vN can turn into an adult practically overnight and even have several iterations before turning a year old. In Amy’s case she’s been slow-grown on the starvation-diet and is treated like a very precocious five-year-old; when she consumes her grandmother she suddenly matures way beyond her mental age and it’s interesting to see how she adjusts to the situation, there are moments where she longs for the security of an adult to make her decisions for her.

Amy’s character development, some of which I touched on above, is central to the story, she goes from a little girl to a strong, independent woman. More than that, she proves that vN’s are more than machines, not only through her emotional attachment to her parents, but also through her effect on other vN and her interactions with Javier. Javier is the other main character in vN, one we’d previously encountered in The Education of Junior Number 12, a short story published on the Angry Robot site. I literally squeed when I recognised him, as I’d read the story when it was first put up and really enjoyed it. He is the opposite from Amy, a young vN in terms of age, a little past his first year, but the son he bears is his thirteenth iteration and he’s been on his own for most of his existence. I loved how the interactions with Amy change his rather harsh view of life and make him gentler and wiser. Through his relationship with Amy and her treatment of Junior, he realises that the way he’s raised his sons isn’t the way to go about it and his growth and reconciliation with some of his older sons were very touching. What I really loved about the vN characters is that Ashby often made them feel more human than the humans in the book, without ever letting the reader lose sight of the fact that they are not. I truly believed in them and felt the pain that some of them weren’t able to feel, which I think shows Ashby’s strong skill at characterisation.

The story found in vN isn’t just character-driven, however, it is also a very exciting road trip adventure. Amy and Javier go on the run together, both attempting to escape those trying to catch them and to solve the mysteries of Amy’s failsafe failure and her family history. During this journey Ashby showcases her world, which is a future version of our own, and the depth to which she’s developed the history of her world and the details of the vN machines. I was really impressed by how well-developed it was and how believable. The original motivation for the development is both original and rather creepy; they were meant to be helpmates for the people who aren’t Raptured in the prophesied Apocalypse of a Christian splinter sect. I thought this was rather cool and also a bit ironic, because the vN were created in our own image, I’d think a Christian splinter sect would find doing this rather blasphemous. But the creation of the vN is only the biggest example of the depth of Ashby’s world, but definitely not the only one. Coupled with a writing style that reads super smoothly, the quality of the world building and characterisation create a powerful narrative that’s immersive and compelling.

The acquisition of vN must have pleased Angstrom A. Robot, as this book is all about his kind, even if, in the main, they aren’t as angry. Madeline Ashby’s debut novel blew my mind and I can’t imagine where she’ll go next. I seem to be on a good streak, because this is another book that is very likely to show up on my end of year lists. vN will be available everywhere from August 2nd. If you get a chance, this one is a must-read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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