Author: Madeline Ashby
Publisher: Angry Robot, July 2012 (448 pp trade paperback)
Cover Illustration: Martin Bland
Genre: Science Fiction
Soon after I started reading vN (Book I of The Machine Dynasty), I began to suspect that if it wasn’t YA, it had a lot of elements that I associate with that genre: a young, female (well, robot female) protagonist, a teenager (well, not at first, but…) trying to find her place, and most of all, a strong focus on the protagonist’s emotional state and relationships. I managed to plod through Twilight and enjoyed The Hunger Games, and both of these novels are sharply focused on internal, emotional shifts.
The central character of vN is Amy: a young, humanoid, robotic girl. Amy is a von Neumann machine: the humanoid robots of Ashby’s world self-replicate after consuming a sufficient quantity of (to them) edible, non-organic matter. Robots also grow quickly, the time it takes for them to reach their full size limited only by how much they consume. In Amy’s case, her human father and robot mother (from whom she iterated) keep her small for her first five years, in an attempt to give her a childhood, which is rudely interrupted by the return of her grandmother, Portia. Amy’s premature growth to adulthood, and the breakdown of her failsafe (the code that prevents robots from hurting humans and by the same token leaves them vulnerable) lead to Amy’s cross-country flight. These events are set in motion in the first ten percent of the book; Amy’s journey, and her subsequent struggle as she suddenly finds herself a young adult, attempting to get back the life she lost, is the primary narrative arc.
There is some graphic violence and some dark subject matter. Though stronger and faster than humans, and sentient as well, robots have free will but not choice: they are subject to human whims. At best, they are treated as equals and partners; at worst, as sexual playthings whose programming forces them to be willing participants in human cruelty and perversion. This isn’t the majority of the story, rather it is one element of the world that – from being sheltered – Amy finds herself in.
vN is not YA; it is a coming-of-age story that traces Amy’s growth from a child to a confident young woman as she discovers, internalizes (sometimes literally) and resolves emotionally the story of the family of her childhood: her mother, grandmother, and father – and forges a family of her own. The constraints under which the robots operate stand in for the world of human emotion, a world where, as Amy’s mother says, love is the “inability to see the other person get hurt without losing a part of your mind.”
Ashby does a good job of portraying a brave, but still frightened, young girl, and allowing a reader to experience her growth as she comes into contact with compassion and sacrifice, anger and violence that originate from both the humans and the robots around her. Her struggles are the struggles of a child becoming an adult: whether to act, when actions sometimes have painful consequences – or sacrifice, when given the choice to run. The decisions Amy makes define the kind of person she will become, and the power of those choices is shown in the way they impact those around her.
The novel is very engaging, largely made up of periods of flight and rest, with the character arcs driven by the paths taken at each turn. The end conflict is a little anti-climactic: though it fit with the overall theme, it elements that led up to it, to make it seem less like a device created to facilitate a desired resolution. This is a minor issue, though – one of emphasis, rather than construction.
The secondary characters were well drawn, and their stories mirrored Amy’s as they made their own choices. I would have liked a little more dynamism: there are opposing world views expressed, but it would have been nice if they’d been more challenging and complex, if there had been another layer of emotional and philosophical depth.
vN (Book I of The Machine Dynasty) is an engaging, entertaining book, that touches on some complex, relevant themes and draws interesting parallels between its vision of artificial and human life. I hope Ashby keeps exploring these themes, and look forward to reading her next novel.