Last month I reviewed Life of Pi and mentioned that it reaffirmed my philosophy of finishing books even if I don’t like them, because the ending might be redeeming. There are times when I just stop reading, but instead of abandoning the book altogether, I try to take the optimistic approach – perhaps I picked the wrong time to read it, and I should try again later. This has proven to be a good strategy in the past, and again with Madeline Ashby’s vN.
I first started reading it a few months ago, just before and during a trip to SA. I was distracted by travel stuff, and found the novel disappointing. It didn’t seem nearly as exciting or interesting as the many rave reviews suggested, and put it aside at the halfway point. I gave it another shot a few weeks ago, giving it my full attention this time, and was rewarded with an excellent, well-paced story about AI and all the issues surrounding their creation and existence in human society.
The story is mostly told from the perspective of 5-year-old Amy, a self-replicating von Neumann machine. Amy might be a cyborg, but her human father and vN mother are raising her to believe that she’s as much a ‘real’ girl as her human counterparts, and deserves all the same rights and privileges. Her father Jack also makes an effort to show his wife Charlotte that he loves her and takes her emotions seriously, seeing her as a person, not a robot. I particularly liked his description of her here, bringing together human attributes and vN physiology with a suggestion of something beyond that:
Charlotte was different. Charlotte was vN. She had no hormones to influence her decision-making, no feast-or-famine cycle driving dopamine or serotonin. She didn’t get cramps or headaches or nightmares or hangovers. She didn’t need retail therapy or any other kind. Her “childhood” was difficult – her mother abandoned her in a junkyard – but her spirit was as strong as the titanium sheathing her graphene coral bones, her personal integrity as impermeable as the silicone coating the polymer-doped memristors in her skin, her wit as quick as the aerogel currents wafting through the musculature of her body. Charlotte was a self-replicating humanoid. Charlotte didn’t do drama. Until now.
It sound idyllic, but Jack and society as a whole haven’t quite adjusted to the idea of machines as people. The solution is not simply for vN to be treated like humans – they’re not human, and their needs, abilities and weaknesses mean that co-existence requires something far more radical than mere acceptance. Amy’s story proves this, beginning with her parents’ (or her father’s?) decision to ‘keep her little’. In an imitation of human life, vNs start out as babies and grow into adults, but they can do this in a matter of weeks. Jack, being human, wants Amy to age slowly, enjoy her childhood and grow gradually into adulthood as a human would. To do this he has to starve her so that she doesn’t grow as rapidly as she’s designed to. She’s basically spent her whole life in a state of starvation that her father has imposed on her with his kind, loving intentions.
Amy’s hunger is the catalyst for the main story. Her grandmother – a terrifying rogue vN – pitches up at Amy’s nursery school graduation, murders a small child, and attacks Charlotte. Amy runs to her mother’s aid and involuntary eats her grandmother in the first full meal she’s ever had:
she’d only meant to bite her, but Amy’s diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime’s worth, hot and bitter as angry tears. It ate the flesh off her granny’s bones. By then, Amy couldn’t stop. The smoke was too sweet. The bone dust was too crunchy. And the sensation of being full, really full, of her processes finally having enough energy to clock at full speed, was spectacular. Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore’s Law made flesh.
It’s enough for little Amy’s body to grow into an adult’s, but the most important aspect of this incident (to the authorities at least) is that Amy’s failsafe malfunctioned. All vN are equipped with failsafes to prevent them from harming humans. They feel pain or can even shut down if they see a human being harmed, so Amy should have been killed or put in a coma from seeing her classmate murdered.
Amy is jailed, but escapes and goes on the run with another vN, an eco-friendly model named Javier who is younger than Amy but happens to be ‘pregnant’ with his thirteenth child. With Javier, Amy and the reader gradually get a better sense of what it means to be a vN, and what the vN mean to humans. The vN were created by a fundamentalist church, with the intention of providing slaves to serve the humans left behind after the Rapture. Their primary function was sex, so they were created with “all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin”. Consequently vN are impeccably beautiful, they are self-replicating so that humanity will never run short on slaves, and their failsafes not only ensure that they can’t harm humans but that they love humans and want to please them even though they’re conscious of their pre-programmed enslavement.
The implications of these perverse origins and the failsafe are contemplated or played out throughout the novel, often juxtaposed with the ideal of egalitarian vN/human relationships. Jack worries about the possibility of a paedophile taking Amy, because her failsafe would make it impossible for her to resist. Amy actually later encounters a paedophile who has two vN children so that he’s not tempted to hurt ‘real’ children. At one point Javier is captured by bounty hunters because he lacks the power to fight them.
The authorities are after Amy, because a vN who can witness human pain is also a vN who can inflict it. Humans are terrified of what she represents – a powerful, autonomous machine who isn’t forced to adore them or incapable of hurting them. What I kept thinking as I read, was that Amy is a machine who is far too human for humans to handle. She is a creation who threatens to surpass her creator and break out of the slavery she was born into.
There is a robot revolution in the making, initiated not by Amy but by Portia, the grandmother she devoured. Portia argues that “Sentience is not freedom [...] Real freedom is the ability to say no” and this is the core of her plans for the vN. Unfortunately for her, she now exists only as an entity in Amy’s head, gradually revealing the details of her plan to Amy and the reader. Most of the time she insults and badgers her granddaughter for being so naive, but she offers guidance too. At times Portia is able to take over Amy’s body, typically using it to get out of tough situations with extreme violence. In a series of flashbacks, we also get glimpses of the incredible cruelty – including murder and torture – that Portia has inflicted to achieve her goals
Despite being a clone of her grandmother, Amy is her complete opposite, proving that she is more than the sum of programming. Amy might look like an adult, but up until very recently, she’s been living the life of a 5-year-old child, and she’s still adapting to the transformation. She has childish habits (like playing in a sandbox) and asks odd questions that reveal her lack of knowledge about the world. She knows little about sex and has to adjust to having a mature, sexually attractive female body. Shortly after her prison escape, she changes into a child’s t-shirt and Javier politely averts his gaze and suggests that she put on a baggy jersey. Amy actually dislikes her large breasts, remarking that they’re “weird” and “stupidly inefficient” since they serve no purpose for vN. She tends to be too trusting, and while Portia resorts to violence too easily, Amy’s attempts to be kind and gentle sometimes cause just as much trouble. Her main goal is to find and help her parents, while Portia has much grander schemes, and Javier just wants to stay out of prison but finds himself inexplicably dedicated to Amy.
I remember thinking that this story was a bit flat the first time around, but I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention because there are so many nuances at play here – little details and debates about tech, gender, character, ethics, what it means to be human, what it means to be vN, what it means to be ‘real’. While I wasn’t completely blown away by the novel once I’d finished, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with its story and ideas, and all the interesting questions it raises, both for the characters and as a serious consideration of the possibility of AI in human society. I’d happily launch into more discussions if I didn’t think it would make the review excessively long and rob you of the pleasure of seeing it all unfold yourself. However, I will say that everything about Amy’s journey and the vN in human society screams with the need for revolution. I have no idea where Ashby is going to take the Machine Dynasty series from here, and I can’t wait to find out.