Book review: vN (Madeline Ashby)

This fast-paced science-fiction thriller from 2012 was Madeline Ashby‘s debut novel, the first of The Machine Dynasty series. vN stands for von Neumann machine, a self-replicating android with advanced repair mechanisms, and what’s known as ‘the failsafe’ which means they can’t harm humans or even see them being harmed by others, otherwise they’ll have some kind of breakdown.

Amy Peterson has been grown at roughly human-child pace in a mixed organic-synthetic family for five years, so although she’s still in kindergarten she’s smarter (and stronger) than most of her class. Special arrangements mean she never gets exposed to situations where she might see the other kids get hurt, so it’s only when Amy’s ruthless and violent vN granny turns up that anyone realises Amy has a broken failsafe.

The bulk of the novel follows Amy as she’s on the run, suddenly alone and fending for herself. Amy’s mixture of childish innocence and android intelligence, strength and resilience make for a fascinating character and some odd situations. Her interactions with both humans and vN are interesting as she’s in some ways neither one nor the other and it’s not as simple as humans trying to capture her and vN trying to help her, there’s a mixture of attitudes on both sides. At any one time there are people (human and vN) trying to destroy her, study her, cultivate more of her, or protect her, all because of that broken failsafe.

As well as being a gripping thriller, the book tackles some big subjects. For one thing there’s the mixed synthetic-organic relationships of families as a reflection on attitudes to race and otherness. There’s also a fairly deep exploration of what makes friendship, love, and family ties. The use, abuse, wielding and withholding of power are strong threads through the story, and the nature of freedom – when is a choice not really a choice? This links in with the idea that all parents ‘programme’ their children to some extent – is that natural or can it be circumvented?

There’s the old conundrum of nature vs nurture, with Amy having been brought up as much like a human child as possible and thus having a different perspective on morality and relationships for instance from most synthetics she meets. Ethics in general gets a good and thought-provoking going over. Is it okay to do bad stuff if the ‘person’ you’re abusing isn’t human? If not, why not? And what if it takes the abuse away from a human?

The book does get quite violent in places but it never feels gratuitous. The world (mainly the western USA at some unspecified time not too far in the future) seems fully thought through, and every time I had a question about why something happened a certain way or about consequences, I found it was answered within a page or so. The main characters were worth spending time with, I wanted to know what happened to them and how things turned out, and the way they interacted with each other was great. This is one of the best science-fiction novels I’ve read in ages.