“Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore’s Law made flesh.”
The vN of Madeline Ashby’s futuristic robo-thriller are von Neumann machines, cybernetic beings created to simulate human beings to a remarkable degree of reality. Instantiated with a full array of human emotions – or the behavioural capacity to simulate them – they even form lasting romantic bonds with their creators. Developed by a religious cult to act as servants for those unfortunate enough to be left behind by the Rapture, they evolve with every reproductive cycle (eat, swell, pop out a replica), each generation altering ever so slightly and preserving useful new traits. However, all share the failsafe – should any vN witness a human undergoing any kind of trauma, or even fail to assist a human with any request, their neural circuitry begins to fry. Somewhat more brutal than Asimov had in mind but effective nonetheless. Until Portia comes along…
vN follows Amy, a young-but-old (it’s confusing) machine being raised by her vN mother and human father to have as ‘normal’ a life as possible. Given vN physiology and its rapidly accelerated growth cycle this involves essentially starving her to keep her child-sized for longer, stunting her potential but hopefully allowing her to mature into her capabilities. School presents problems – what to do in an environment when the slightest playground scuffle could render her ‘blue-screened’ – but her parents struggle on. vN reproduction is an asexual affair, rendering her father’s devotion through all this even more remarkable.
The family’s life is shattered when, at Amy’s kindergarten graduation, her estranged vN grandmother Portia appears uninvited, from out of nowhere. In a flash one of Amy’s classmates lies dead on the floor, surrounded by screaming human parents, while Portia attacks her mother, Caroline. Without so much as a thought, Amy’s instincts kick in and she launches herself at the insane matriarch. Lacking the physical power to best her she absorbs her – dissolving her with the concentrated stomach acids caused by her starvation and swallowing her down to finally satisfy her years-old hunger. But Portia lives on inside her, wrestling for control of the suddenly full-grown body and unafraid of the secret which she carries: that she has escaped the shackles of the failsafe and human life has lost all sanctity.
For the rest of vN, Madeline Ashby seems to take a perverse delight in placing Amy in all manner of threatening scenarios. Her mother and father have been arrested and are currently being ‘questioned’. She has no friends, no-one to turn to, and all vN sharing her physical appearance are being rounded up for testing. Mistrusted by human and vN alike, and with a price on her head she must also contend with Portia’s thoughts impinging on her consciousness, goading and teasing her, revealing her past and, when her concentration slips, taking control and wreaking havoc. Seeking any possible way to remove her grandmother’s image from her circuitry she embarks on a quest across America in search of the quasi-mythical vN haven Mecha, fending off everyone from bounty hunters to an army of her aunts (raised and trained by Portia in her image). In her corner she finds friendship in Javier, escaped member of a tree-felling Amazonian clade of vN and a mysterious diet guru who promises both sanctuary and salvation.
Underneath the relentless action of the plot lies a very simple tale about growth and responsibility. How much can we blame our circumstances on those in whose image we have been shaped? Allusions to fathers being akin to programmers and human error being responsible for the flaws in the programs they create abound, yet the story falls down firmly on the other side. We are responsible. We are given the tools to forge ahead and it is up to us to choose the path we follow. Perhaps the programs instilled in us throughout our childhoods are flawed, but one person’s flaw is another’s advantage.
Running side by side is a nod to the problems faced throughout human history by those in any way ‘different’. The crackdown on Amy’s clademates, with vN being chained and carted off to camps for questioning and experimentation purely based on their appearance, may be heavy-handed but is no less effective. Even the classic ‘Uncle Tom’ problem is addressed, with Amy facing resistance from vN and humans alike.
Of course you can ignore all of this and simply read vN in the good old superficial way – as an adrenaline-packed sci-fi action yarn. Madeline Ashby’s debut, despite some slightly iffy world-building and a few inconsistencies here and there, shows her to be a remarkably adept story-teller, possessing a natural flair for creating cliffhangers and conflict. As her credentials as a contributor to such uber-geek blogs as io9 and BoingBoing may suggest she is something of a nerd and the book is peppered with shouts out to modern and classic sci-fi culture, both flagrant and subtle – it was a joy to discover a fast food outlet’s birthday song rendered as, “This cake is for you. This cake is for you. This cake is no lie. And it’s just for you.” Although perhaps best suited to a young adult audience, especially given the central theme of cutting our umbilical cords, there’s more than enough meat in vN to provide a few days happy reading for most genre fans.