Yesterday was the US launch date of Madeline Ashby’s second novel iD. Having loved her first Machine Dynasty book vN, this was one book I was looking forward to a great deal and when offered the chance to ask Madeline some questions in honour of said release, I took it in my grabby hands and ran with it. In conjunction with the interview I’m running a giveaway for iD, so please check that out if you’re interested. But first my interview with the wonderful Madeline Ashby, who made my questions seem so much more intelligent with her wonderful answers.
I loved the origin story you crafted for the von Neumann machines, having them be helpmeets for those who are left over after the Rapture. Whatever sparked the link between robots created in our image and radical Christian sects?
Thanks! It doesn’t click with everybody, so I’m happy when it works for people. As for that link, it’s always been there. I mean, if you look at most robot stories, they’re essentially Genesis retold. Someone creates a machine in their own image, and then that machine doesn’t do what it’s told, and the machine gets put out for scrap, like Adam being cast from Eden (or Satan cast from Heaven). So I don’t think it’s such a stretch for a preacher to come to the same conclusion, and start fundraising accordingly. I had that thought years ago, but it was confirmed when I read a New Yorker piece on Rob Bell, the former minister of the Mars Hill Bible Church. Not that Bell is anything like LeMarque (the leader of New Eden Ministries in my books) in terms of his ethics or proclivities, but he’s a tech-savvy, Hollywood-style megachurch pastor who’s just not that concerned with social conservatism. They really do exist.
The nature and different ways of raising vN’s also provides fertile ground for the nature vs nurture debate. From vN I’d guess you lean toward the nurture side of this debate. Is that an accurate assessment? Was it your intent to explore this topic when you began writing in the Machine Dynasty universe?
It was something that I was interested in, yes. My parents’ family histories have some pretty dark chapters. So I had a vested interest in finding out how to avoid replicating some of that. How do you choose differently? Is it just a matter of having different circumstances, different opportunities? Is that enough? And so I focused on the idea of parenting as programming. And I dwelled on that theme in the second novel, as well, but from a couple of different perspectives. This book is about getting out from under your past in a different way. And it’s about finding the thing that actually makes that journey worth it, in the end.
In my review of vN I remarked on the fact that you strike a perfect balance between making the vN seem more human than the actual humans in the book, without letting the reader ever forget that vN’s are anything but human. Was it difficult to keep from totally anthropomorphising your cyborgs?
It is difficult, but what I find more interesting is how the readers understand that difference. I’ve had people tell me that they think the vN are essentially human beings, and others say that the vN are not human enough. In my opinion, that says more about the reader than it says about my work. I think it points to the fact that “humanity” is discursive — we all think we know what “human” means, but that’s just a consensual hallucination for the purposes of efficiency. In reality, there’s a constant dialogue about who gets to be human, and why. As N.K. Jemisin pointed out recently, in her Continuum speech, the Australian government used to classify aboriginal peoples as “fauna.” Fauna, for Christ’s sake. So really, “human” and “non-human” isn’t quite that simple. There’s a whole history that complicates any easy definition of who and what we are.
In vN you gave us a story from the viewpoint of a slow-grown vN, iD‘s protagonist Javier has grown to adulthood and has iterated numerous times before his first birthday. Was this juxtaposition chosen deliberately, or did the stories of these two just each demand their own book?
It was very deliberate. I decided (after talking with my therapist about it, actually) that it was important to invert everything from the last book. After all, the second act of life is supposed to be different from the first. So I chose to do everything differently: maintain a failsafe, focus on sex and not violence, set it in the winter and not the summer, incorporate more men than women, and so on. All of those choices were very calculated, because I wanted the books to be able to speak to each other and comment on each other.
iD moves us away from Amy’s point of view and tells Javier’s story instead. How easy was it to switch from one to the other?
It was actually pretty easy. I had written a short story from his perspective, and then the epilogue to vN, and so I felt like I knew him. And I felt that I had a pretty deep understanding of what he’d gone through, in the first book, even though Amy wasn’t always there to see it. I knew what he’d been up to. So I knew the way in. I will say, though, that being with him is hard. He’s a hard guy to spend time with for prolonged periods. He’s fun, and witty, and smooth, and sexy, but inside him there’s a molten core of obsidian sadness. He’s programmed to love humans, but has no faith in them whatsoever.
Is iD the final book in the Machine Dynasty or can we look forward to more stories set in this particular iteration of Earth’s future?
We’re talking about a third book. If we do it, I’d like to talk about Amy and Javier’s family. I didn’t have the space to do everything I wanted with them, and they’re a really fun ensemble. I really enjoy the way they play off each other, and I think the end of this second book has set them up to face some insane challenges.
Do you have any other books or short stories in the works? What is next for you?
Right now I should be working on my story for the Hieroglyph project, which is a collaboration between the Center for Science and the Imagination and ASU, inspired by a speech Neal Stephenson gave on the need for more big ideas in science fiction. I’m writing about eradicating all international borders, based on prior work I did on the future of border security.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh, God, no. Not really. I mean, at our house we try to keep the authors together, but that’s about it. All the wire rack paperbacks are doublestacked on the same shelves; that’s the pulp section. All the Stephen King hardbacks are together — ditto China Mieville, Dan Simmons, Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Peter Watts, and so on. I also keep all the manga and graphic novels together. And in my office, I keep all my academic lit together, grouped by subject: East Asian Studies, Fan Studies, Cyborg Theory, Feminism, Innovation, Business Lit, etc.
Bio from Angry Robot Books: Madeline grew up in a household populated by science fiction fans. She graduated from a Jesuit university in 2005, after having written a departmental thesis on science fiction.
After meeting Ursula K. LeGuin in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company that year, she decided to start writing science fiction stories. While immigrating to Canada from the United States in 2006 , she could not work or study and joined the Cecil Street Irregulars – a genre writers’ workshop founded by Judith Merril – instead.
Since then she has been published in Tesseracts, Flurb, Nature, Escape Pod and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Manga and Anime and writes on such matters for i09, Tor.com and BoingBoing. Currently she works as a strategic foresight consultant in Toronto.
Thanks to the lovely folks over at Angry Robot Books I have one copy of iD to give away. If you’d like to be in with a chance to win Madeline Ashby’s iD, send an email with the subject ASHBY GIVEAWAY to pallekenl [at] xs4all [dot] nl (or just click the little envelope at the top right) with your name and your mailing address and I’ll have my husband randomly pick a winner. The giveaway is open internationally, but please, only one entry per person or you’ll be disqualified!
The competition will remain open till July 3rd and I’ll announce the winner on the 4th, when iD is released in the UK.