Good science-fiction is rarely entirely original. The themes and technologies included in a particular story are often an evolution of concurrent ideas. Madeline Ashby’s vN is an example of an author taking a concept—in this case, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics—one step further. In his 1942 short story, Runaround, Asimov established the tropes of the philosopher robot and its social rights. Modern sensibilities allow Ashby to explore social roboticism in her debut novel vN,the first book of The Machine Dynasty, in ways that Asimov would have been unable to seventy years ago.
Ashby’s writing is far smoother and easier on the eyes than Asimov’s. She breaks up heavy danger and daunting philosophical hurdles with well-placed, natural humor. vN is also strongly character-driven. Ashby orchestrates her cast of dynamic characters beautifully to bring her ideological points home in a way that is neither preachy nor weak.
vN follows Amy, an extremely advanced, sentient robot who looks and behaves almost exactly like a human. She is a von Neuman person, “vN” for short. All vN have a built-in fail-safe that causes them to experience fatal operational errors when they witness human suffering. As a side effect, the fail-safe causes them to reflexively adore organic humans no matter how they’re treated in return.
Amy begins the book as a child being raised by her vN mother Charlotte and her human father, Jack. Her parents feed her a special limited diet, essentially starving her, to force her to grow at the rate of an organic human child, so Amy can attend school and make friends in a normal way.
When Amy’s grandmother Portia appears and kills one of her human classmates, it becomes obvious that Amy is anything but normal. To defend her family and class, Amy consumes her grandmother in front of her entire school. The amount of nutrition she absorbs from Portia allows Amy to literally become an adult overnight. It also saddles her with Portia’s operating system, allowing her personality to live on inside Amy’s own mind. Portia and Amy vie for their shared hardware throughout the book.
vN is basically Little Red Riding Hood where the little girl eats the wolf, but faces the challenge of becoming what she eats. Since Portia, Amy’s mother Charlotte, and Amy are all identical in physical structure, they are all already one another – they are all already identical to the wolf. When Amy eats Portia, she runs the risk of becoming an insane murderer. Portia “takes over” more than once, too. The wolf is strong. Only the presence of the woodsman—an actual arboreal specialist vN named Javier—gives Amy the strength to hang on as she’s on the run.
Then, of course, there is Little Red Riding Hood’s all-important basket of food. Hunger and consumption are massive themes throughout vN. The von Neumanns eat to grow, eat to reproduce, eat to survive. vN who are the property of parents eat nothing, homeless vN eat garbage, and mentally ill vN eat one another. The food intake of all vN is predicated on the esteem of humans who still consider themselves the rightful owners of people who are also objects.
One interaction spoken at a picnic is especially illustrative. An organic teenager has cut himself while slicing pineapple. He is utterly without context to understand Charlotte’s synthetic experience in any way except one:
He looked over at Charlotte’s hourglass shape, still sitting patiently on the beach. “Does she belong to you?” Jack had corrected others on the matter of his relationship so many times that he could now summarize it in a single line: “She belongs with me, not to me.”
Members of Amy’s family regularly eat one another as well, believing that by doing so they will gain power. Javier is able to photosynthesize, a talent that fits well with his independent spirit. Organic adults regularly deny food to their infant vN to keep them little – and, most significantly, Rory makes her living regulating food intake for young vN so that they don’t spring into adulthood at one year old. Ultimately, Rory is the most powerful threat to Amy’s safety. The structure of vN could easily be mapped by who controls the food.
While Amy ostensibly provides the metaphorical bridge between humans and robots, the most telling point of the book arrives when Javier—the heroic woodsman—realizes that he is in love with another robot. He becomes capable of distinguishing between his fail-safe’s enslavement and when he is being true to his independent character.
Javier’s transformation is not like the traumatic suffering and self-sacrifice that prompts Amy’s. He struggles with his fail-safe to the last chapter. Javier’s claim on himself as a “real” person is and always will be an uphill battle. His struggle against his own flaws more closely mimics the nature of us ordinary flesh-and-blood humans than Amy’s archetypal test.
There were some problematic parts of vN‘s plot and style. Certain premises, including that of Portia’s initial appearance, were poorly justified. The early switch from Jack’s perspective to Amy’s was a little odd too, but ultimately did not hurt the story.
Despite these weaknesses, Ashby’s subversion of Little Red Riding Hood and her exploration of robot-rights make vN a good read. This is the type of novel that will reassure readers about the quality of science-fiction being published today.
Anna Call is a librarian and educator. She holds degrees in both creative writing and information science. After working in the private sector for a number of years, she returned to public librarianship in March of 2012. She currently works for a small rural library on the North Shore of the greater Boston area. Her interest in speculative fiction and film is rooted in the work of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.
Anna writes for both Isotropic Fiction and The Big Brown Chair. She currently lives in Salem, Massachusetts.