vN by Madeline Ashby
vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012) The First Machine Dynasty is a modern take on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, filtered through A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this time dealing with a gynoid rather than an android. It’s a case of “have mind, will travel in search of a soul”, of having to grapple with the problems of self and identity. Initially, her parents slow her physical development so that she grows at approximately the same speed as a human child. Some paedophiles use this system to eroticise young gynoids and so satisfy their own sexual drives, cf Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012). So we start off in the same territory as When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold which is a coming-of-age story about a brain in a box having to learn how to be a “boy” when he has no body. Our heroine has been “born” into a mixed marriage of android woman and human man. Her reduced diet enables her to go to a kindergarten with human children of the same size. Her parents want to give her the chance to experience development over time and to socialise with equally “young” human children. Unfortunately, although the body may be comparable to that of a child, the mind is not. This dissonance is disturbing to those around her. Fortunately, like the Azimovian robots, all these androids also have a built-in safety circuit to prevent them from injuring humans. As a general rule, the failsafe causes them to freeze at the sight of an injured human.
In this book, vN stands for a von Neumann self-replicating humanoid, i.e. all fully-grown androids, regardless of gender, can asexually reproduce. This deliberately undermines the usual female stereotype which is of a body designed to produce children and then take responsibility for their upbringing and homemaking while still playing the role of sex object when the man requires satisfaction. The interesting issue is whether these parthenogenic androids are genuinely gendered or more equal despite being given bodies with the physical characteristics appropriate to their apparent biological sex.
Matching other books and films, these androids are designed in clades for specific functions and so have unique sets of physical and psychological attributes to suit them to their designated roles. Interestingly, the clade to which our heroine belongs was programmed as nurses. This has given her empathy and so, by virtue of her machine-code, she believes in bourgeois happiness for those with whom she interacts, wants to mother a newly “born” android, and seems predisposed to find a male who will love her for herself. Initially, all these androids were created to help and support the few remaining humans expected to be left on Earth after the Last Trump. When this End-of-Days failed to occur, the androids were repurposed as the servants of all humanity. So they are like humans, but now used as slaves without any rights. This book therefore pitches the growing gynoid with her emerging new powers and resident granny against the government and law enforcement agencies that would recall all her clade and trash them to prevent the leakage of any trait that might enable the machines to become more “human”. As an exception to the general Asimovian rule, nurses have a reduced protection circuit. It’s sometimes necessary to cut into humans by way of surgery and other forms of treatment. It would be inappropriate if nurses were to freeze up every time they saw humans being “injured”. It all depends on the context. More importantly, it gives these androids a lower threshold to cross in the decision whether to attack a human.
The problem with this kind of book is that the author delivers escapism. We’re allowed to see all the defects in the given society and then watch the heroine not only survive but beat the system. As in fairy stories, the big bad wolf meets the axe head on and the giant in search of bones to grind for flour is brought down to Earth with a bang. In the real world, humans who occupy the fictional android role are beaten into submission and have no chance of changing anything in our technological world. The only effect when we read books like this is a few hours of satisfaction that one of the downtrodden can fight off oppression. When we put the book down, we return to the real world where we remain powerless. Instead of merely describing dystopias, it would be better if people could be motivated to engage in positive action to change the world. For books to be subversive, to act as a call to action. Except no large corporation as a publisher is ever going to allow revolutionary books on to the mass market. Capitalists guard their hold over the people.
So how does vN: The First Machine Dynasty shape up overall? It actually starts rather well in what we might call action mode. After the initial set-up, she’s off and running, meets up with a serial reproducer and begins an increasingly close relationship with him. But, to my mind, the book loses its way when she allows herself to be captured in the hope she can rescue her parents. The book gets into a more political mode. The issue can be simply put. If the trait now empowering one section of her clade can be reproduced, androids can rise up against their human oppressors and take their freedom. If the humans can eradicate all her clade before this happens, they will remain the “master race”. So there’s an inevitable disagreement between factions both in the human and the android communities. While everyone is squabbling, our heroine and consort, plus his extended family, are offered the possibility of “getting away from it all”. I read through to the end to see how it turned out, but I was less than engaged. Although it’s interesting to see how Madeline Ashby parallels the idea of parents socialising their children with the androids doing the same with their coding of the young, of individuals learning to love each other by overcoming the inbuilt tendency to selfish individualism through trust and “love”, this all becomes less of a dystopian thriller and more of a romance. We’re all supposed to find our heroine’s protectiveness of the little baby ‘droid endearing and go all gooey as he crawls into her lap with adoring eyes. Well, sorry. This is not quite what I signed up for in the android wars to establish independence for AI-kind. So you should only pick this up if you want the mushy side of the rebellion to slaughter all-comers.
For a review of the second in the series by Madeline Ashby, see iD.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.