Susan Calvin Was Right


I have a chip on my shoulder about scary robot stories that dates to the big-budget movie massacre of Asimov’s I, Robot. I’m just not that interested in the idea that they may all try to kill us some day; I’m much more interested in the idea that things behave according to their programming.

So is Madeleine Ashby. vN delves into deeper waters – What kind of programming do the robots have? And why?

vN follows Amy, a vN who has been raised human-girl-style by a human father and a vN mother. vN means android – in Ashby’s near-future Earth, a von Neumann machine.

Through Amy’s eyes, we’re introduced to a world where vN can be just like humans. Doesn’t Amy’s mother say she loves her father? Doesn’t she mean it? And Amy is so very human.

As our book begins, Amy’s vN grandmother, Portia, shows up to a school recital, kills a little boy, and attacks Amy’s mother. Amy attacks Portia in order to save her mother, and ends up eating Portia whole.

None of this should have happened, we’re told. vN are built with Asimov’s First Law built in. But Portia has found a way to subvert it – and now Amy’s code has absorbed Portia, so that Amy carries her murderous relative around in her head like a sick second personality.

The book follows Amy on the run through a human world that’s searching her out as a threat. On the way, she learns a lot about that human world. Seeing that world – our world – through Amy’s eyes is powerful and disturbing. The best of the book, it turns out, isn’t about robots at all – it’s about the humans who made them and use them.

Much of vN focuses on the idea of the “failsafe” that’s built into each vN unit. It’s the First Law, obviously, but also, more subtly, the second: vN can technically say no to humans; but they are designed not to want to. So if, at the beginning of the book, we’re introduced to the vN as basically human, we’re later forced to confront the idea of people who are basically human who are also slaves. What do we do, Ashby asks us, with other people who can’t tell us no?

Amy, like many people who are easy to love, asks a lot of us. She’s a good person, a hero, who loves strongly and fights to protect those she loves. She also begins the book as essentially a six-year-old child and ends up a grown, sexually mature woman in less than one year’s time. The slight nonhuman squickiness of that is massively trumped by the all-too-human other squickiness that permeates this book. (SPOILER) If you aren’t ready to face the idea of little girl androids named “Loli,” you may not be ready for the punch vN is packing.

This book is well worth a read. It’s full of gorgeous detail and nail-biting action, engaging characters and just plain fun. It’s engrossing and smartly written, and gives the reader excellent fodder for thought and discussion.

About christafrench

I'm a writer/mom/software trainer living in Austin, TX.
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