The robot apocalypse pops up all the time in science fiction, and with good reason. Humans are generally bad at getting along with each other; sharing this planet with intelligent life of an entirely different variety would probably not go down well. Isaac Asimov, of course, famously developed three laws of robotics that were designed to avoid android armageddon. All of them were designed to sanctify human life, to make it inviolable in the eyes of robotkind. Then, Asimov proceeded to demonstrate how such laws could go horribly wrong.
vN reminds me a lot of Asimov’s robotics stories. It is the journey of its protagonist, Amy, as she figures out who (and what) she is in a world with both robots and humans when she, a von Neumann robot, discovers her anti-human-violence failsafe doesn’t work. Instantly a pariah and a fugitive, Amy goes on the run and winds up in the company of an itinerant vN. Oh, and she has the memories and personality of her grandmother inside her … because she ate her grandmother. Yeah.
Of course, unlike Asimov, Madeline Ashby is great at women characters. It really shows with Amy, who makes or breaks the book. In the first chapter, where the narration follows the human Jack and his concerns for his vN daughter, I was still ambivalent about vN. I was wondering where it was going and when Ashby would start providing some more background into the history of vN and the terminology she was subtly slipping into each paragraph. After Amy’s confrontation with and consumption of Portia, I was hooked. It became difficult for me to put vN down, because I needed to find out what Amy was going to do next.
I like Amy. The entire world turns against her, and she doesn’t whine. After accidentally getting involved in a jailbreak, she goes on the run with Javier. He iterates (the process by which vNs spawn smaller copies of themselves that will grow into new people as they absorb vN food), and his son Junior is injured while they escape capture. They get separated, and Amy finds herself with Junior in her care. So she assumes a false identity and starts making money to rectify what she perceives as her fault.
And this is where it gets really interesting, because Ashby uses Javier to remind us that vNs aren’t human and to demonstrate that Amy is special. Javier doesn’t really care that Junior has “bluescreened”—he’ll just iterate again in a few months.
I love it. I love that after spending so much time convincing us of the veracity of Amy’s vN emotions, Ashby challenges that perspective by showing us Javier’s transparent lack of compassion for his own progeny. Thanks to his failsafe, it is impossible for him not to love humans, to harm humans, to watch humans get hurt. But he couldn’t care less about other vN, even his own children, and he is brutally honest with Amy about his conception of vN emotions. He knows his are simulated—and he points out that human emotions are also simulated, chemically—and therefore doesn’t view them as real.
The conflict between Amy and the government, as well as the one between Portia and Amy, speaks to that tension between humanity’s need for homeostasis with the vNs and the vNs’ very sucky position in society. Portia’s methods are reprehensible, but her cause might be just. vNs aren’t exactly slaves of the Cylon variety, but they are not respected and not treated fairly by the vast majority of society; the term second-class citizen comes to mind. Since Amy is both our protagonist and a vN, we are largely encouraged to feel empathy for their plight (or at least, I was)—but I don’t think it’s that simple. Thanks to the actions of Javier and other vNs, it’s possible that Amy is an exception rather than the rule—maybe vN aren’t really ready to be free after all.
Thanks to this complexity, Ashby avoids turning vN into anything so banal as a “message” novel (aside from the hopefully self-evident message that hunting people down because they are different is wrong). There is plenty of room here for interpretation: maybe vN aren’t people so much as very well-programmed simulacra. (Then again, what are people?)
Amy is special though, and several characters point out at different times that Javier seems to have accompanied her because her behaviour and emotions are so human-like. Is this why she doesn’t seem to have a failsafe? Or is that a result of absorbing Portia? Ashby unspools the mystery behind Amy’s estranged grandmother and the future of vNs quite slowly. I wasn’t satisfied with all of her explanations (and by that, I mean I didn’t really understand parts of the ending!), but I really enjoyed the ride.
I also wish that vN had more tangible antagonists. This seems to be a common problem with fugitive fiction: the enemy all too often manifests in the form of minions, police officers and troopers and bounty hunters sent to pursue the fugitive. With no scenes in the evil lair, all we know is that “the government” is out to get Amy. It’s an effective but rather lazy crutch of storytelling in what’s otherwise a very well-designed story.
I’ve raved before about how much I love the “hard” SF, those stories that go on to no end about the technobabble explanations behind the tech du jour. Ashby doesn’t do that. This might not be great news for me, but I think it helps make the story more accessible to people who are more tentative about robot fiction. It’s not quite possible to read vN as an ordinary story about a girl on the run—but in many ways, that’s what it is. She just happens to be a robot, and a quirk of her robotics happens to be why she’s on the run. Ashby’s focus on the social implications—for Amy and her family and the world—of Amy’s run help to make vN a more welcoming and appealing book. Hard science fiction certainly has its place, but it’s nice to see that someone can do robots-with-feelings without all the extra vocabulary and still produce a good story.
When it comes to writing about robots, it has, in the end, kind of all been said and done. vN manages to dust off the old tropes and give them a shiny new coat of paint, however. There is probably a line between human and robot emotions. Hell if I know what it is.