In vN, Madeline Ashby provides a refreshing take on the idea of robots on the run. She tries to bottle lightning a second time in iD—and she succeeds. The second Machine Dynasty novel raises the stakes and allows Ashby a chance to explore both the backstory and future of this world where Asimovian robots have been reified. It’s not quite a full on apocalypse, but the world appears to be holding its breath.
I’m going to assert that you needn’t have read vN to read iD; and, if you read this one, you could still read vN without that story being too spoiled. I read vN almost exactly two years ago, and consequently I remembered very little when I started in on this book. Ashby, to her credit, spends very little time on a recap or exposition—but this assumed familiarity will be a help rather than a hindrance to a newcomer, because there is actually very little you need to know about this world to get up to speed. Organic robots called vN—short for von Neumann machines, because they can self-replicate—exist as second-class citizens. They are supposed to have a failsafe that prevents them from harming humans (and, in fact, is so striden they can’t even watch simulated human violence, like movies). But the failsafe seems glitchy now; one vN named Portia has gone on a rampage stopped by her own granddaughter, Amy. And now Amy has flounced off to an artificial island refuge for vN, and the United States government is freaking the hell out.
iD actually doesn’t follow Amy so much as it does Javier, her sometime-lover-not-quite-husband. That’s another reason why reading the first book isn’t as necessary: almost all of Amy’s involvement in this book happens behind the scenes, so you don’t need to be too familiar with her character. And after his involvement in the first book, it’s nice to learn more about Javier’s backstory. We come to understand his relationship with his father and how that affected his own iterations. And Ashby uses the nature of vNs, as well as Javier’s own clade’s existence as sex workers, to explore the spectrum of sexuality and sexual behaviour. iD is a very inclusive, very expressive book, and that’s really interesting.
Javier’s relationship with Amy is defined almost entirely by the same unique aspects that have led to her celebrity. Amy is paradoxically both the most and least human-like vN: her lack of a failsafe means that she can hurt, even kill humans; but unlike humans, she doesn’t feel or experience pain. She has formed the kind of wariness and hatred for certain humans that few vN manage (I’d argue Javier is another), yet she also has some very startling and alien qualities. She swallowed her own grandmother’s memories, and now she is in constant communication with some kind of semi-sentient artificial island, mulling over the long-term survival of humans and vN through increasingly elaborate probability projections.
For Javier, though, it’s simpler: he loves Amy, and he thinks she loves him, but she doesn’t seem to invest the same amount of emotional commitment into their relationship. And he wants her to hack him, to rid him of the failsafe too—but she refuses. She hedges as to why, citing consent issues. This allows Ashby to tacitly interrogate the thorny ideas of consent within an otherwise stable relationship. Science fiction has the cool ability to use new technologies to amplify the consequences of what we do already. We are, all of us, trying to “hack” each other—help each other develop better habits, make good impressions when we meet new people, etc.—and we have tricks for doing that. Imagine if you could literally reprogram someone though … and make them a killer.
For a robot apocalypse story set in the probable near future, there is very little sense of “future” in this world. There are no flying cars, jetpacks, or asymptotic Moore’s Law processors. The Internet is largely the same. So aside from vN, it’s hard to understand how else this world has changed. This world lacks the otherness that characterizes similar stories, notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but I feel like iD loses some sense of dimension without it. The antagonists certainly feel very flimsy (I count Holberton in this camp).
One particularly interesting and also annoying aspect of iD is the near-constant plot derailment. I feel sorry for Javier: literally every plan he makes goes sideways the moment he starts implementing it. He has this big plan to go seduce Holberton so he can get access to a backup of Amy’s … and that really doesn’t work out. In any way. And every other plan he makes falls apart, forcing him to improvise madly. On one hand, this is realistic and refreshing. It’s boring when a protagonist comes up with a plan, even a really clever one, and then the plan goes off without more than minor hiccups. On the other hand, Ashby’s fondness for these twists means that Javier is almost constantly reacting rather than acting. There is little sense of momentum. And then the ending comes, and we meet up with Amy again, and it all turns out not to have mattered much….
iD is a really fascinating story about robots and humans and love and sex and life. If even one of those things interests you, you will probably like this book. (Imagine if two of those things interest you! Logically you would like it twice as much. Or four times as much if the relationship is not linear but geometric!) Ashby hints at even cooler things to come in subsequent (hopefully) books, at the possible solutions to the nascent human–vN divide. I say “hints at” because she has an almost uncanny knack for saying very little outright but drawing the blanks in such a way that you can fill them in yourself without much difficulty. Keywords like “generation ship” or “Stepford solution” dropped into the conversation are viral thought-bombs, exploding in your brain and generating a virtual panoply of narrative forks that eventually converge in the actual, but unstated, truth behind the story.
That’s enough to convince me that Ashby is a writer of the first class, although iD itself might not fall into such a category. I love the ideas she’s tapping into and the stories that she tells with these characters. Despite dissatisfaction with some of the vagueness of setting and antagonism, I still found myself, as with vN, not wanting iD to stop, and not wanting to put it down.