Despite the fact that the “robots vs. humans” premise is well-trodden territory, I continue to get excited for fiction about the intersection between humanity and technology. This sub-genre can definitely disappoint (e.g. Amped), but there’s a lot of rich material there, and in the hands of a talented writer, it can be terrific (e.g. Machine Man).
We can add vN to the terrific column. Ashby writes great prose, creates phenomenal characters, presents a unique take on the android-uprising premise, and underpins it all with satisfyingly well-researched details and nuances.
vN opens in the perspective of a human man named Jack who married a vN (or von Neumann, or android) named Charlotte. These hybrid, human-vN relationships are relatively commonplace, but they are not very widely accepted and not very easy to sustain. They have no legal standing as a married couple, and he never seems to fully trust that her emotions are real, and not just part of her programming.
Complicating things, Jack and Charlotte have a child, which is to say that Charlotte made a copy of herself. When vN eat a certain amount of “food” (graphene, plastic, and other such materials, either processed into vN “foodstock” or raw, as unrecycled garbage), their replication process triggers automatically. Human sperm has nothing to do with it. In order to keep from having an entire litter of robot kids, Charlotte sticks to a very strict diet and is hungry all the time. Jack and Charlotte also keep their daughter, Amy, on a strict diet, so that she’ll grow slowly, at the speed of human children. This means that Charlotte and Amy are constantly hungry, which is just one of the tricky facets of raising a vN child in a human world.
vN are programmed with a “failsafe,” intended to make them safe for human interaction. If a vN so much as sees a human in pain, they begin to shut down. If the human pain is severe enough, the failsafe can fry their circuits completely, killing them. That means that Amy has trouble fitting in at a human school, and she can’t go to playgrounds with other children because of the risk that one of them will scrape a knee.
Ashby sketches out this complex situation with clarity and confidence, and infuses the whole thing with sharp characters and good prose.
For instance, here’s what Jack has to say about being married to a robot:
Before meeting his wife … he managed to attract the most volatile women in his available pool. … Charlotte was different. She was vN. She had no hormones to influence her decision-making, no feast-or-famine cycle driving dopamine or seratonin. She didn’t get cramps or headaches or nightmares or hangovers.
He describes lying next to Charlotte as she sleeps like this:
That perfect stillness took some getting used to. At first, it felt like holding a corpse. Now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.
vN is chock full of these simple little observations, which point toward a depth of authorial thought that lends this novel a sense of realism that most sci-fi novels can’t create.
But all of this is just the prologue. During a school recital, Charlotte’s mother, a renegade vN whom Charlotte’s been evading for years, suddenly appears and, in a desperate attempt to get to Amy, kills a human boy.
Amy, panicked and always hungry, unhinges her jaw and eats her grandmother whole (growing to adult size in the process), and then loses consciousness. The rest of the book gives over to Amy’s perspective as she tries to find out who her grandmother was and what she wanted… and why her failsafe didn’t trigger when she saw the dead boy.
While Amy looks for answers, Ashby seeds the fictional world around her with features that explore the corners of the definition-of-life theme that runs through any android book. For example, there are people who use vN children as toys for pedophiles—their rationale being that sacrificing vNs is better than endangering human children.
Indeed, even some of the vN treat their own kind as inferior to humans. Some blame the failsafe: they want to please and protect humans so badly that they fail to protect and please each other. Not unlike dogs. The fact that they see themselves engaging in this backward behavior only makes it more painful.
vN gets a bit bogged down and a bit monotonous in the second act, and that keeps it from being a phenomenal cross-genre masterpiece, like Machine Man. But if you have an interest in androids or sci-fi in general, definitely put vN on your list.