Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows what it feels like to forgive the errors made by a partner, simply because of the love you share. But imagine that that love was so powerful, so unquestionable, that you felt deeply compelled to please your partner no matter how abusive, intolerant, or unloving they had become.
Falling in love is rarely a conscious choice. The behaviours it creates can feel instinctive, inevitable, and out of our control. In Madeline Ashby’s novel vN, the protagonists are no different — except for the fact that their love for humans is the product of their programmer’s wills. The fierce depth of their love leaves them powerless when their lovers (and owners) see them less as partners and more as pets: intelligent and obedient to a fault.
This is the dilemma of Madeline Ashby’s robots, the vN. The vN are humanoid machines with deeply human characteristics: intelligence, curiosity and — thanks to the design of their creators — a powerful love of humans and the inability to watch them suffer. This is a far cry from Asimov’s famous laws. Instead of a formulaic ruleset occasionally circumvented by folly, intrigue or artifice, Ashby’s failsafe is much more human. Where the Three Laws served as plot devices in detective fiction, Ashby models her failsafe on the dynamic of abuse and uses it as a tool to elevate her narrative to a level where mind, heart and morality intersect.
It’s not a concept that’s new to the genre — to the contrary, vN builds on a long history of science fiction that speculates about very human robots and how they establish their place in the universe. Think Roy Batty struggling with mortality and loss near the end of Blade Runner. Or the faith and mysticism experienced by Cylons in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Or even the slow awakening as Wintermute and Neuromancer converge, like two halves of a soul, in William Gibson’s classic novel. vN is steeped in these and other works in which robots and artificial intelligences fought to maintain their identities, to reconcile their emotions, and to understand their relationship to humanity. Ashby’s contribution to the genre is thoughtful and adventurous, offering a new take on dilemmas of manufactured consciousness. It’s no surprise that her book has already attracted the praise of contemporary genre stars like Peter Watts and Cory Doctorow.
When reading vN, it’s hard to miss the network of messaging and morality that creeps through the prose. Was it immoral to predefine emotions for a race of machines? By doing so, the vN’s makers deprived them of a crucial element of agency, building beautiful, sentient creatures, and then putting them in a cage. And of course their intentions were good (a rapture cult who, in an act of altruism, built androids to care for the sinners left behind).
The depth of that dynamic instantly wins the reader to the protagonist’s side when she (Amy) discovers that the emotional enforcement of human-worship just doesn’t work for her. It’s something she got from her grandmother, who didn’t shy away from human suffering, and didn’t particularly love humans, either. To the contrary, it turns out that hurting humans was something that Amy’s grandmother was good at.
And then there’s the fact that by restricting her diet, Amy’s parents have forced her to grow at the same speed as a human child — where she would otherwise have naturally reached adulthood in a matter of months. That restraint forces Amy into a pace of growth that her parents think is more natural — but Amy is not a human child. As a self-replicating von Neumann machine, she’s an iteration of her mother, identical save for a small handful of so-called improvements. These improvements give her more power and more choice than any other vN, sowing the seeds for Amy and those around her to become both alive and free. This freedom carries an ominous whiff of the true potential of the vN, along the lines of Vernor Vinge’s True Names or (for a less obscure reference) Skynet.
But this is all secondary. At its core vN is an adventure novel, starring robots who are intimately human — but laced with hints of grotesque power and strange abilities. Unlike so much of this genre, which tags robots with superficial digital traits lifted from pulp fiction, Ashby’s robots explore their uniqueness in a way that is both genuine and alien. It is a rare author who can write a fast-paced adventure without losing sight of the dilemmas, debates, morality and emotion that mark good storytelling. vN is nothing less. If you pick it up (and I recommend you do), expect to find a world thick with meaning and humour, elegantly packaged in an eminently readable adventure.