Madeline Ashby very clearly follows her own path. After all, who else would tout their book on sale at Amazon by recommending it as a gift to “a grandmother who you particularly loathe” (Amy’s grandmother in vN isn’t exactly sweetness and light) or, while everyone else writes trilogies, she writes a duoploy consisting of vN and iD (2 letters, 2 books). Feeling the need to follow her example, I read the Machine Dynasty series in reverse order (as far as I know there are no additions planned.) (OK, truth be told I saw iD on NetGalley prior to publication and was seriously intrigued by the cover and the premise, so I read it first.) I finished iD almost a year ago and just recently finished vN (argh, so many books, so little time). So vN became a prequel for me. I’ve got to say, it was an intriguing experience, albeit one I suspect I won’t repeat.
A few things to know about Ms. Ashby – she’s a flippin’ genius, a marvelous storyteller and she’s willing to pursue her ideas and stories without reference to niceties. While I think it would be fair to say she’s a liberal feminist, she’s way not PC. She takes it all head-on, sensibilities be hanged. She reminds me of a liberal Ayn Rand with a few important differences besides ideology – she knows how to edit, if she explores the same or similar themes, she does so in interesting and new ways; Ms. Rand tended to rehash with slight variations. Also, her are subservient to the story, not the other way around. vN explores themes tied to sentient androids and their relations to humans other vN (she invokes something similar to Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics), unique issues tied to self-replicating androids (hence the Von Neumann machine reference) and a world in which cataclysmic events have destabilized our world (does she have a thing against Seattle?). “An iteration is not a copy, it is simply the next version.” Ashby, Madeline (2012-07-31). vN (First Machine Dynasty) (Kindle Location 3651). Osprey Publishing. Kindle Edition.
From the publisher’s blurb:
Amy Peterson is a self-replicating humanoid robot known as a VonNeumann. 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, 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 she alone can kill humans without failsafing…
So, like Asimov’s I, Robot, she deals with the “laws” breaking down; hey, even robots can rationalize doing things to us for “our own good.”
I absolutely love the way Ms. Ashby works through issues like the goodness (or lack thereof) of the failsafe, government and others who wish to control us and our ability to deal with change. She does so through the narrative with relatively little expositional monologue. She deals with these issues not only through dialog but through the choices characters make as well as her unflinching exploration of the consequences of those actions. She writes in some pretty nasty characters and some brutal action. She has a clear understanding of man’s depravity and a way of starkly describing it. For example, some humans give themselves carte blanche to do whatever they wish to vN (and they have some mighty perverse wishes), since they’re not human and they’re wired to please humans. They rationalize it and even build religion around it.
I also enjoy Ms. Ashby’s play on language and words. For example, Mecha is nearly a vN paradise where they are welcome, are first class citizens and humans are in a small minority; they do not, however, face to it and pray to it, but it’s close. Two for the price of one – an allusion to a holy city but for a mechanized people. I love her neologisms or, if not new, newly established uses of terms: iterate, vN or clave as well as her play on literary references such as The Electric Sheep restaurant for Philip K Dick’s book. Mostly, I just love her stories that make me think.
All of her characters are complex (even the baddies are complexly bad). Her action is intense but not overly graphic. To really show Ms. Ashby’s genius for weaving thoughtful reflections of societal issues into a compelling narrative, I need to resort to examples and that, perforce, requires spoilers, so I will do so below. If you have not read the book, avoid the part of the post below the spoilers line. I hope, however, I’ve given enough of a taste for you to see that vN (and iD) are really worthwhile reads that are just plain fun reads as well. Having read them in reverse order, I would say I liked the story-line of vN more than iD because it answered questions, showed how we arrived a the metaphorical and physical place of iD and had a slightly larger canvas on which to write. I thought that, if anything, Ms. Ashby improved her already fine craft of writing in iD.
Prior to dipping my toes below the spoiler line, however, I also want to commend Christina Traister’s narration. As I typically do, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions relying on Whispersync for Voice to keep me on track. I would think this book would be a bit of a challenge to narrate. Amy needs to be young whilst quickly becoming a full, somewhat jaded woman. Javier is a Hispanic-based model. Portia is wacked. The terminology is a bit eclectic, to wit “…but her spirit was as strong as the titanium sheathing her graphene coral bones, her personal integrity as impermeable as the silicone skin overlaying the polymerdoped memristors embedded there, her wit as quick as the carbon aerogel currents wafting through and shaping the musculature of her body.” Say that fives times fast. Ms. Traister handles it all with aplomb. Her phrasing and pacing are spot on. Her characters are believable and the tone of her voice matches them and their context. She is easy to understand. Lovely work. Seriously good reads; I highly recommend both books (but start with vN).
One final note before spoiler-land; if you’re not already aware, Madeline Ashby’s next book, Company Town, is coming out September 30, 2014. I know I’ve pre-ordered my copy; how about you?
So, example descriptions or turns of phrase to exemplify her no-nonsense writing. For example her subtle criteria for distinguishing humans from vN
Other clades had advanced plugins for differentiating humans. They used thermoptics or gait recognition or pheromone detection. Amy just looked for the ugly parts.
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 368-369)
Here’s a description of eating dear ole’ granny after being kept on a diet to remain small as being somewhat akin to an energy bar:
Her granny had been hurting people and Amy had stopped it. Maybe that was the problem – maybe her granny belonged to somebody important, and Amy had eaten her. That wasn’t her fault, either: she’d only meant to bite her, but Amy’s diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime’s worth, hot and bitter as angry tears. It ate the flesh off her granny’s bones. By then, Amy couldn’t stop. The smoke was too sweet. The bone dust was too crunchy. And the sensation of being full, really full, of her processes finally having enough energy to clock at full speed , was spectacular. 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.
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 401-407)
Ms. Ashby’s characters really pull their punches:
It’s total bullshit, is what it is. This whole culture, it doesn’t give a good goddamn about women.” Shari pointed at Amy. “There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you.” She rested her elbows on her knees and grinned at Amy. “I’m telling you. Big men with their little heads. You know?
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 1802-1805)
Yet, they can also be quite poignant:
And despite having loved his share of humans, Javier maintained no illusions about their loyalty. To love humans was to know them, and to forgive all their flaws, even the ones they didn’t yet know of.
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 3807-3808)
While I decry the destruction to one of my favorite cities (I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Ranier), her layered Museum of Seattle is simply wicked cool.
She lifted the goggles and said “1986,” and instantly the landscape changed: the buildings straightened and the streets lengthened and there were street performers and homeless amputees in wheelchairs. People smoked on the street. They bought newspapers from old metal dispensers, and unfolded them with great difficulty. Tinny, crackly music played from blank-faced players with chunky, shining buttons. Everything was right angles: the cars, the machines, the awnings and outdoor chairs, and the discarded plastic boxes with the two little teeth inside that she couldn’t determine the purpose of. There were no curved edges anywhere. When she looked at herself, she almost took the goggles off again: the environment had layered her in rubber-toed sneakers, pink knitted things crawling up her calves, odd ripped leggings with stirrups, a zippered leather skirt, and a giant black T-shirt with the word “Pixies” across the chest and a knot tied in the excess material off to one side. Even her hands were all wrong: they wore stupid lace gloves with the fingers cut off. Around her, the others looked the same: pale streaky denim, big black combat boots, skinny trousers with giant cargo pockets, hair that literally stood on end. The right angles repeated in the clothes, too: the older women all had boxy shoulders and pleated pants.
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 2660-2669)
Finally, a longish example of explanation within dialog:
“I only looked at Nate after I ate Portia,” Amy said. “My failsafe still worked then; I didn’t watch the grown-up human channels, I didn’t play anything that was too violent or too real, my parents wouldn’t let me.” “Exactly,” Dr Sarton said. “Your parents wouldn’t let you. So how would you have known?” Amy backed away from the display. “Fine. If you’re so sure, find my memory of that night. See if I really saw what you think I saw.” “You know I can’t do that, Amy.” He stood up. “And you should know that even if I could fix you – which I can’t – I wouldn’t. It would be wrong. It would be like destroying a masterpiece.” “What?” Amy’s fists tightened. “This isn’t a masterpiece, it’s an accident. And it’s hurt way too many people.” Dr Sarton’s eyes played over her. “You ate your grandmother,” he said. “Why did you do that?” “Because! She was…” Amy paused. Why had she done it, really? She hadn’t paused to think about it in the moment. Her feet had started moving and she had known what to do. There had been no doubt in her mind that it was the right thing . She knew now that it was a mistake – a huge, epic, terrible mistake that had destroyed the lives of too many people, organic and synthetic both. But in the beginning, she had just been trying to help. We all know what happens when you try to help. “I did it because Portia was hurting people,” Amy said. “Hurting people, or hurting your mother?” Dr Sarton stood. “You didn’t tell the people to run, Amy. You didn’t stand between Portia and your father. You ran right up those stairs and you pounced on the woman who was hurting your mother.” “She killed Nate! She was going to kill my mom!” “Did she have any peroxidase with her? Did she have a taser?” “No, but–” “Did your mother look like she was in pain? Had she suddenly gained the ability to suffer, while you were busy accepting your little diploma?” “I don’t know! But I couldn’t just let Portia keep hitting her, she was my mom, and I loved her–” “Yes! Exactly!” Dr Sarton snapped his fingers and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You loved her. You loved her more than you loved anybody else in that room. More than your friends or your teacher or even your father. You chose your mother, your fellow robot, over them.” Sarton seemed to remember who exactly he was touching. He let go, and pulled his smoking jacket a little tighter around himself. “Don’t you know how special that is?” He swallowed. “People have been working for years to bring your gifts to life. Since the very moment the failsafe was conceived of, humans have wanted to see how it might fail. If you knew the patents I had to wade through, the otaku braggart bullshit, the fanboys and fangirls who had claimed to have hacked your clade–”
Ashby (2012-07-31). vN (Kindle Locations 2983-3005)
I defy you to get out of one of her books without being thoughtfully entertained.