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22 August 2012

vN by Madeline Ashby


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 clade’s history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

I was so excited about Madeline Ashby's vN when I first read the short story, The Education of Junior Number 12 at http://angryrobotbooks.com/vnshort/ back in Christmas. The short story provides a good foundation to the world of vN and I highly recommend you to read it before the book as it gives you a better insight into the character of Javier.

Like the androids in Spielberg's A.I., the Von Neumann machines (vN for short) are used for pretty much everything that you can imagine. Some people truly love them and marry them whereas others use them as no strings attached sex toys. Due to the built in failsafe control, the vNs can't help but love their human masters and will obey any given command even if it puts them at risk.

Instead of another modern day interpretation of Pinocchio's tale, the book explores what would happen if vNs can overcome the restrictions that they were created with and how society reacts once it learns that the machines can hurt humans. Ashby describes a world where intelligent, almost human like androids are treated as third class citizens who live and die by their masters' commands. There are times you pity the vNs and wonder why no one has demanded greater rights for them.

Throughout Amy's adventure with Javier we see the contrast between a vN with functioning failsafe control and one without. The failsafe not only affect their behaviour but also their entire outlook and the story uses this to offer a fascinating look into the issue of self-identity. In the case of Javier, it explains why he abandons his young as soon as he's able to and his reluctance to relate to other beings.

The writing, especially the parts surrounding the growth of Amy is excellent. We see the once naive and innocent Amy adapting to the world as circumstances force her to part with her parents and escape from the authorities. However there are a couple of times in the book where the scene suddenly jumps and I have to go back to check if I have not missed anything.

Despite the slightly awkward transitions in the book, Ashby's writing is still promising and I look forward to the sequel. On the whole, vN is an impressive début that brings a much needed human aspect to the tried and tested robot stories.

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