Amy is five years old, somewhat stunted for her age, but otherwise a happy go lucky innocent girl who is about to graduate from kindergarten, an only child with a loving father and devoted mother.
Amy is also not human, just like her mother is not human. Both are Von Neumann machines, android form artificial intelligences. A shocking event at her Kindergarten graduation involving the sudden, sharp appearance of her mother’s mother Portia will send Amy on the run and help her discover who and what she really is in the process.
vN, a debut novel from Madeline Ashby, is set in an indeterminate future. The story tightly focuses on the main character as she navigates a future world where technology has brought true artificial intelligences to life, by the most unlikely of sponsors. Now that they exist, however, their tangled and complicated relationships with humans are not always peaceful, even given supposed safeguards on the vN’s part.
Although the author has told me it was not an inspiration and that she has never even seen it, vN reminds me, in several ways, of the Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Like in vN, we have a young, sentient artificial person, child like in size, who is on the run, finding an ally in the artificial being community along the way. We also have different models of artificial beings in both works, with said artificial beings both working with and apart from humanity. Humanity’s reaction and relationship with the A.Is in both works is complicated, to say the least. Both feature scenes of artificial beings trying to live off of the scraps of humans. Both movie and the novel for much of their structure are built around a tour of the world the characters find themselves in, often on the run from authority figures.
There is even a set piece in vN set in a post-earthquake Seattle, with the city half-flooded and mostly destroyed very reminiscent of the drowned New York City of the movie, complete with revelations about the protagonist’s true nature from a figure met there.
vN is much more than an accidental riff of aspects of the movie, however. vN offers a bold and interesting vision of the future. The lack of dates and time frame allows the author to unhinge the book somewhat from the present, giving her leave to worldbuild in a delightful manner. There is interesting and deep speculation on what her vNs need to function (yes, they do indeed need to
“eat”) , how they propagate, and even how they engage in reproduction and evolution. Like the A.I. in Catherynne Valente’s story “Silently and Very Fast”, how these artificial intelligences first came to be is not the usual or the expected.
Beyond all that, Amy is very interesting as a character. She might have the body of a young girl, and in many ways has an innocent mind of one, but, especially as the novel goes on, her humanity runs in a parallel track with her artificiality, her alienness, her strangeness. She is our viewpoint on this world she has built, and it’s a powerful literary technique. The novel also makes use of the fact that Amy uses an ability to swallow and devour another vN, and inadvertently wind up with a second personality inside of her head.The byplay between Amy and this second personality is well done and effective. And thusly the book effectively explores questions of free-will, family, and the relationship between man and technology.
But my favorite bit in the book is one I understand that the author shares, a set-piece set in a chain restaurant designed for the benefit of both vNs and humans. The juxtaposition of artificial beings working in and dining in a theme restaurant/diner is irresistible and one of the best chapters in the entire novel.Why wouldn’t artificial intelligences, needing sustenance and intellectual stimulation just as humans, not go to a place like The Electric Sheep? (And I thought the SF reference clever and appropriate)
What didn’t work for me? Well, the writing could use some more polish, there are some clumsy transitions and events that I attribute to first novel writing more than anything. Sometimes events seem to happen solely for the sake of moving the plot forward rather than being organic and logical. As the book is in a sense mostly a very long chase sequence, sometimes the devices needed to impel the plot and character forward feels artificial.
There is also a strange and unclear sequence nine tenths in the book that I don’t think works very well. This makes the denouement and ending of the book a somewhat less than completely clear and I think it could have been a little more straightforward. And, again, that seems to be eerily reminiscent of the movie.
Overall, though, it’s a very solid novel, especially for a debut work, and I would love to see what more Ashby has to offer in this universe (the book is labeled as the “first book of the Machine Dynasty” after all) or others she might create.
You might also be interested in Catherine Russell’s review of vN here at the Functional Nerds. Alternatively, John and Patrick spoke to Madeline about vN and other topics on episode 113 of the Functional Nerds Podcast.