Crux by Ramez Naam

CruxTitle: Crux
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 August 2012; this edition published 2 April 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
7/10

Contains spoilers for book 1, Nexus. If you haven’t read it, you can check out my review here.

In book 1 of Ramez Naam’s posthumanist sf series, the key question was how best to introduce Nexus to the world. Do you give it to everyone or reserve it for an educated elite?

Kaden Lane made the democratic choice and uploaded the code for all to access. Now it’s out there, it’s open-source, and people are discovering all the fascinating possibilities of being able to connect your mind with others’. Unfortunately, it presents just as much opportunity for abuse, so Nexus gets used as a coercion tool for things like theft, slavery, murder and rape. All it takes is a programmer with the right tools to hack someone’s brain.

Kade is painfully aware of this. In Nexus, he proved himself to be a man who thinks carefully about the consequences of his actions and takes responsibility for them. Knowing that his work is being used to for such terrible crimes kills him, so he spends his days monitoring the use of Nexus, identifying abusers, and hacking their minds to stop them.

This is possible because he and his partners, Ilya and Rangan, wrote a “back door” into the Nexus 5 code before the ERD stole it from them. Kade has since changed the passwords, so the ERD continues to hunt him down. They want to eradicate the use of Nexus in the general population, while using the technology for their own purposes. The back door is the crux on which the story rests. It’s a good thing only because it’s used by someone as golden-hearted and dedicated as Kade, but will he always use it in the right way, for the right reasons? And who is he – or anyone – to decide what “right” is? It’s a simple question when, for example, Kade hacks a mind to stop a rape, but the prospect of the ERD hacking minds for the sake of state security is terrifying.

So Kade is on the run in Thailand, along with his friend Feng, the Chinese ex-solider who worked as Su-Yong Shu’s bodyguard. Su-Yong Shu was killed at the end of Nexus, but now exists as an uploaded consciousness, vastly intelligent but going insane without the sensory input of a body. She’s kept isolated on a server deep underground while her husband Chen tries to torture her into giving him one last scientific breakthrough before she self-destructs. Ling, Su-Yong’s eight-year-old posthuman daughter/clone is desperate to rescue her mother, but she cannot access the server and, in a moment of intense frustration, she reaches out with her mind and cripples Shanghai with what looks like a massive cyber attack.

Meanwhile, Sam Cataranes is hiding out in Thailand as Sunee Martin after abandoning the ERD in favour of the posthuman movement. Now Sam’s working with Nexus kids and discovering their boundless potential.

Such potential is also of interest to Shiva Prasad, a billionaire philanthropist who has worked hard to solve the world’s environmental problems but came to the conclusion that it’s now impossible for humanity to solve the problems it created. He wants to use Nexus to create a hive mind intelligent enough to find the necessary solutions, but for that he needs Kade and the back door.

Meanwhile, back in the US, ERD’s Neuroscience Director, Martin Holtzmann, faces a personal and moral dilemma. He took Nexus at the end of book 1, but he’s using it in secret because it’s illegal and he works for the organisation that’s trying to prevent the public from using it. It gets worse when he’s put in charge of experimenting on autistic Nexus children in an attempt to find a “cure”. The work disgusts him – not only is he fighting a technology he’s embraced, but he’s torturing children to do it. To cope with the stress, he uses Nexus to create an app that tweaks his body chemistry and releases opiates into his system. Unsurprisingly, he ends up with a drug addition.

The pressure to “cure” children with Nexus comes partly after a group calling themselves the Post-human Liberation Front (PLF) tries to assassinate the US President by hacking a Secret Service agent (another way of abusing Nexus – forcing people to work as soldiers and assassins, or simply hacking into their minds to spy). The PLF targets anti-Nexus political figures, but in doing so it exacerbates people’s fears of posthumans.

 

Crux is exactly like Nexus in that it speculates about the potential of an evolutionary technology while considering its moral implications and using all that to fuel an action-packed plot. It’s smart and entertaining, and Naam does a pretty good job of handling a large cast of POV characters. The narrative hops around a lot, but that didn’t really bother me.

That said, I felt like I was reading a lesser version of Nexus. The speculation I enjoyed so much in the first book feels pretty standard now. It’s all still pretty cool, but the book is so full of ideas that many of them get little more than a mention.

The overall positivity regarding Nexus also makes the book feel a bit light on substance, and this is something that bothered me in the first novel too. While I love that the series is optimistic about new technology rather than basing the plot on what goes wrong with it, that optimism occasionally eschews a more complex debate. It can also get annoying. Sometimes the novel feels like it’s just gushing about how super awesome Nexus is without developing much in terms of plot or character. Granted, Nexus is awesome, but raving about it isn’t necessarily good for the story.

It also tends towards melodrama. I felt like Crux was constantly using children to tug at my heartstrings, manipulating me in favour of Nexus, while turning me against the evil detractors and their (often justifiable) fears. Nexus can “cure” autism, allows parents to communicate with their babies in the womb, and lets adults experience the beautiful wonder of children’s minds. It helps children learn faster by absorbing knowledge from other children and generally just makes them sweet and fascinating and delightful. Anyone who opposes the use of Nexus or threatens the children in some other way is very easily converted into a villain simply because we all have to think of the children. And, well, yes we should, but I’m not fond of this particular cheap writing tactic.

We do see some of the bad sides of Nexus though (besides the coercion), and it gives you something to think about. Martin Holtzmann develops a drug addiction without even having actual drugs (that could be a novel in itself). The autistic Nexus children see those without Nexus as not being real people, and instantly ostracize a child who doesn’t have it. A class – or species – conflict is definitely coming. Ling takes out an entire city because of a tantrum. The novel, perhaps a bit too conveniently, avoids dwelling on the amount of death and destruction she so easily causes, thereby glossing over the consequences of having Nexus in a young or unstable mind. Nexus children won’t necessarily be as wholesomely wonderful as the ones Sam takes care of, but the novel almost always portrays them that way, with Ling as an anomaly.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much of Crux. It’s still a strong, smart sf thriller and I’m kind of taking the things that make it cooler and asking, why couldn’t you tell me more about this? And yes, it gets melodramatic and some of its moral debates are simplistic, but no more so than loads of similar stories that I love. It didn’t do much to expand on the posthuman issue set up in Nexus, but that doesn’t make the topic any less interesting. So, if you liked Nexus, it’s worth seeing where Crux takes the story.

 

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Nexus by Ramez Naam

NexusTitle: Nexus
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 16 December 2012; my edition published 3 March 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Nexus is a nanotechnology that allows users to link their minds. Kaden Lane and his friends have managed to modify and upgrade it, so that it connects more nodes and allows the brain to run software. Nexus is considered a drug, probably because it’s taken in liquid form and tends to get used for pleasure or abuse in the way drugs typically are, but that isn’t really what it is. It’s a nano-machine that can be permanently integrated after just one dose. And by using it, people can become transhuman or even posthuman.

And that’s where the trouble lies. The American government of 2040 is strictly opposed to posthumans, and deems them non-human and highly dangerous. The Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) sends agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate Kade’s group of scientists and Nexus users, and when they’re caught hosting a Nexus party, almost all of them get arrested. Kade is blackmailed into helping the ERD to save his friends from going to jail. He knows the organisation will steal the Nexus tech for their covert operations, but he feels responsible for the consequences of what he’s created, particularly the fact that his friends’ lives could be ruined because of it. The ERD also convince him that he will be doing the world a favour by spying on Su-Yong Shu, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who they suspect has been upgraded to posthuman status and is trying to change the world in ways they won’t accept.

Along with Sam, Kade is sent to a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet Su-Yong Shu. Ironically, he needs Nexus and other transhuman tech to enable him to do this – software to numb his emotions and keep him calm and a combat program to help him defend himself with a minimum of training. It’s even more of a moral quandary for Sam: she’s a government agent fighting transhumanism and posthumanism, but to do that she’s had to become a posthuman supersoldier. She’s driven by childhood experiences that have made her hate this sort of tech, but when she uses Nexus she’s immediately seduced by it. After all, its most noble feature is a beautiful one – connecting people, sharing everything, understanding everyone. By using Nexus, she might be able to come to terms with her past.

It’s this feature that motivates Watson Cole to protect Kade and Nexus no matter the cost. Cole, another supersoldier, committed a great deal of violence on behalf of his government. With Nexus, he connected with his and other victims of political violence and realised the horrors of what he’d done. Even though it still gives him nightmares, Nexus ultimately made him a better person, and he believes it will make a better world, if it’s in the hands of people like Kade.

Obviously there are downsides too. Nexus is mind-hacking tech. A similar drug was used for sex slavery. The ERD is worried about armies of brainwashed supersoldiers and tries to convince Kade to help them by showing him evidence of people who have been hacked and used as assassins. It’s uses are revolutionary, evolutionary and terrifying, and the novel is built on the question of whether or not it should be used at all. Nexus is essentially an ethical debate embedded in what happens to be a pretty good thriller.

Sam’s character is more or less at the entry point of the debate: she has to decide if she’s for or against Nexus, for or against transhumanism and posthumanism for the world. Kade is obviously pro-Nexus, so for him it’s a question of how to use it – give it to everyone, or to an elite? What is the best way of fostering all the benefits of Nexus, while curbing its dangers?

It’s a fascinating discussion, although that’s mostly because of all the possibilities it explores, not because there’s a truly difficult ethical tussle. It’s pretty clear where Naam’s allegiance lies, and the story steers us neatly in that direction with the right placement of good/noble characters vs unscrupulous bastards and government drones. We’re way past the point of asking whether humanity should upgrade itself; it’s just a question of how to do that in the most ethical way possible.

And I guess it’s also an easy question because, in my case, Naam is preaching to the converted. I’m more interested in the stories where things like AI, nanotech or cybernetic enhancements challenge our conceptions of personhood, and create dynamic ways of existing. I’m less interested in stories where these technologies turn out to be more danger than they’re worth. I like sci fi that’s positive about the future, not afraid to face its challenges.

Which isn’t to say that Nexus and its physical enhancements are shown to usher in a utopia. Naam has written a rallying cry for posthumanism, but doesn’t avoid showing us how dangerous it can be. Early in the story, Kade and his friends capture Sam after her Nexus training fails to stand up to the upgraded drug and she accidentally reveals her true identity through the mind-link. Rangan, one of the developers, uses Nexus to restrain Sam by hacking her mind. Sam rightly points out that what they’ve got here is a coercion technology; they have the power to read her mind and force her to do whatever they want. They can control her body while she is helpless to resist. Kade makes a feeble attempt at a counterargument, stating that this is just a safety precaution and they plan to put in safeguards to prevent people from using Nexus for mind control. The naïveté of this is glaring – Nexus will almost certainly be used in horrific ways and as noble as Kade may be, he will never be able to prevent it. Quite often he’s forced to face up to the unintended consequences of his creation, and because he’s a good guy he grapples with the ethics of it.

All this is deftly intertwined with some pretty awesome action and high-tech espionage, so there’s plenty of entertainment to accompany all the food for thought. Nexus is the kind of sci fi you should be playing close attention to, not only because it makes for such a good read, but because we will eventually be caught up in these debates for ourselves and our societies.

GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!

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The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.

 

    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.

 

    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!

 

    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.

 

  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.

 

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireTitle: The Mirror Empire
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 04 September 2014
Publisher: Angry Robot
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

I normally start a review with my preferred kind of plot summary – one that covers all the major inciting events and most, if not all, of the key characters. But it just doesn’t work with The Mirror Empire. This book pushes the boundaries of what it means to be “epic”, and from the very beginning you’re in the middle of a strange world, surrounded by characters, bombarded with backstories, while caught up in complex current affairs and personal conflicts. I won’t lie – I found this book difficult to read and review, but here goes.

The Mirror Empire relates the beginning of a war brewing between parallel worlds. ‘Mirrored’ worlds. They have the same hourglass suns. They have the same stars, which give various powers to those gifted with magic (known as jistas). They have the same people, more or less. But each world has moulded those people in very different ways. In one the sky is amber, the Dhai race wage constant war, and the world is dying. In the other, the sky is lavender-blue and the Dhai are scholarly pacifists in their own land and slaves in another. On both worlds, the star Oma is rising, a cataclysmic event that has dire consequences for the politics of magic and leadership throughout the land. Those who are gifted In the blue-sky world where most of the story is set, different regions wrestle with each other, while seething with their own internal conflicts. A large cast of diverse characters drive the story, which is set across a variety of locations, each with its own culture.

And that’s just a very, very broad overview of the plot. Given how much hype this book has received, you’ll have no shortage of plot summaries available anyway, so I’m going to take advantage of that and delve into other discussions. There is a lot I really appreciated in this novel. It’s not only impressive in its scope, but in the way Kameron Hurley seems to have considered all the conventions and lazy assumptions of fantasy (epic or otherwise) and said “FUCK THAT”. She subverts everything, from the bottom up.

For example, the characters don’t ride horses. Horses don’t even seem to exist. They ride dogs or bears with forked tongues. The landscapes in Dhai are not forests and open grasslands, but treacherous jungles of semi-sentient, occasionally carnivorous trees and vines. The plant life is so savage that it has to be razed to build homesteads, and then kept at bay with fences, protective webbing or magic. Travelling through this woodland on foot or by bear/dog presents a unique peril. Weapons like swords are only sometimes made of metal – many warriors carry ‘infused’ swords made from plants that spring from a seed inside the wielder’s wrist, or wrap around the wrist, binding the wielder to the weapon. Even food is different. You get a kind of paradoxical vegetarian cannibalism – people who don’t eat any meat except human meat, although only in certain circumstances; humans are not kept like livestock. Food is also made from blood, insects and the strange plants, none of which is treated as exotic. There is one occasion when a character balks at the weird food, but it’s when he’s served the kinds of meat and fish dishes that are more familiar to us.

Then there are family structures. I don’t recall coming across any patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear families (ie. one man, one woman, and however many kids). In Dhai, families are large, polygamous units with a very egalitarian feel. In Dorinah on the other hand, families are matriarchal but deeply sexist. One of the POV characters, a general named Zezili, has a beautiful husband who is more like a concubine, sitting quietly at home while she goes off on military campaigns. With this kind of marital structure comes a different view of gender and the body, as you can see in the way Zezili describes her husband:

He wore a white girdle that pulled in his waist just above the hips. He was, of necessity, slender. She believed men should take up as little space as possible. He wore his black hair long over his shoulders, tied once with a white ribbon. Those men allowed to live were, of course, beautiful; far more beautiful than many of the women Zezili knew. Anavha was clean-shaven, as she wanted him, lightly powdered in gold, his eyes lined in kohl, eyes a stormy gray, set a bit too wide in a broad face whose jaw she had initially found almost vulgar in its squareness. He stood a hand shorter than she; she easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. She liked him just this way.

Zezili is very gruff and not especially likeable, but she and her husband – along with other characters – undermine several gendered stereotypes or norms – women as slender beauties, men as strong warriors (most of the warriors are female), men as leaders. In Dhai and Saiduan, there is also more than one gender – the Dhai recognise five different kinds (male/female assertive, male/female passive, and ungendered), each with their own pronoun, and the Saiduan have three physiological sexes. There’s even a character – an immortal warrior assassin – who periodically changes gender.

It makes sense then, that in these societies heterosexuality is not the norm. In fact characters don’t categorise their sexuality at all. People are simply attracted to other people, rather than specific genders. You could say that bisexuality is the norm, although the term doesn’t really apply when there’s no heterosexuality or homosexuality to define it against. No one is particularly possessive either – having multiple sexual partners seems as normal as having multiple friends, although it’s a bit different in unequal relationships like Zezili’s marriage (she can lend her husband out to her sisters, for example).

I like that there’s this balance of good, bad and grey-area characteristics to these societies. It’s not simply a utopia of sexual freedom and progressive family structures, but a different kind of society with its own problems and advantages. So it’s cool that you have female warriors like Zezili, but not that she has the power to own her husband like a sex toy. Then there’s the story arc of a character named Ahkio: he becomes Kai (the Dhai leader) when his sister dies, but he and others are uneasy about this, because the Kai has traditionally been a woman gifted with magical powers (of which Ahkio has none). It’s not that the Dhai discriminate against men, but rather that people tend to cling to tradition.

And some parts of the world are pretty racist. Both the Saiduan and the Dorinah keep slaves, and most of those slaves are Dhai. So some Dhai are comfortable, well-educated and enjoy the support of large family units, but quietly ignore the fact that their own people are slaves in other parts of the world. This becomes an important plot point later in the book, and the issues of slavery and and racism also make Zezili’s story one of the most interesting. Zezili is half-Dhai, half-Dorinah, and achieved a position of prestige in service of the Empress because her Dorinah mother accepted her, thus favouring the Dorinah half of her heritage.

She’s given a tediously gory and baffling task – to systematically slaughter all the Dhai in the slave camps, supposedly to quell some rebellion. Zezili is not one to question her Empress’s orders, but she finds the task depressingly easy and wonders why the Empress is crippling their society, which relies on the labour of the slaves to function. And, in the back of her mind, Zezili knows that once all the slaves are dead, half-breeds like her will be next.

I enjoyed specific aspects of the story like this, but now I need to get into what I found problematic, which is that, on the whole, this is an overwhelming sprawl of a novel. As I said, I found it to be a very difficult book in some ways, and several things contribute to that.

It’s a totally unfamiliar world. This is part of what makes it great, but it also means that, throughout the book, you’re concentrating on all the new details. It not just a few cool ideas, but entire landscapes, social structures, cultures, a magic system etc., all of which have bearing on the plot.

Then, while trying to picture the contemporary world, you’re also given the history behind it. There is an unbelievable amount of backstory that you need to understand before you can get a good grasp of the current story. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I got much more than a general idea of either. Because, as I’ve mentioned, the plot is a pretty complex one too, and it’s told using many (too many?) characters. It took me a while to get to know the cast, some of whom start getting POV chapters later in the novel, or disappear for several chapters so that you can’t quite remember who they are when they pop up again. If I had the time, I would have re-read the book and made twice as many notes before attempting this review. I will definitely have to re-read it before I even think of attempting the sequel.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get particularly attached to any character, except perhaps Roh, a charming young parajista (he has magic abilities linked to the star ‘Para’), and Zezili (unlikeable, but in a way I like). Ahkio, the ungifted man unwilling pushed into in a leadership position usually given to gifted women, has one of the most potentially interesting story arcs, but I found him a bit bland, and got bogged down by all the politics and people involved in his chapters. The ‘main’ character Lilia, who we meet as a child in the first chapter, fulfils, in some ways, the standard trope of  the orphan with hidden Powers and a Destiny, but differs in other ways. She was handicapped as a child, when acid burned half her foot off, and she’s asthmatic. She’s hopeless at magic, but brilliant when it comes to strategy and puzzle-solving. You know, according to storytelling convention, that she’s eventually going to get stronger and more powerful, but she still has to deal with her disability, and her journey is characterised by terrible violence that strips her of that golden aura of nobility that typically surrounds this kind of character. These are the kinds of things that should make Lilia one of my favourite characters, but instead I found her tedious. I’d like to meet her in the next book, but in this one? Meh.

So, do I think The Mirror Empire is a good book? Yes, mostly. I cannot fail to admire Hurley’s ambition, and what’s she’s achieved as a result. Epic fantasy often looks to me like a somewhat stagnant genre, where too many of the books are so lacking in imagination that it’s more like vaguely historical fiction than fantasy. But you can’t say that of this novel; Hurley’s world is jsut so invigorating.

That said, this was too much of a sprawl for me. It’s so challenging, in a way that tends to more tiring than enjoyable. I took ages to finish. I don’t mind that it’s quite slow, building up to what will surely be massive, devastating events, but I do wish that it was more focused, more tightly written. It looks geared to be an influential book in the genre, so I’m glad to have read it, and I’m glad to have read an epic fantasy novel that takes a fresh approach to worldbuilding, social structures, sexuality, etc. But it’s not going to be one of my favourites.

iD by Madeline Ashby

iD by Madeline AshbyTitle: iD
Series: The Machine Dynasty #2
Author: 
Madeline Ashby
Publisher:
Angry Robot
Published:
25 June 2013
Genre: 
science fiction
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 7/10

Please note: this review contains spoilers for vN (The Machine Dynasty #1). It’s essential to start there, and I highly recommend checking this series out. If you haven’t you can read my review of vN here.

At the end of vN, Amy defeated her grandmother Portia by raising the body of a massive group of vN beneath the ocean. Their combined processing power has given her god-like powers which she has since used to design and create her own island – a customised vN paradise where Amy has paid close attention to even the tiniest details, like the timing of the breeze and the width of the tree branches.

Amy’s immense power allows her to watch over everyone, and she has built strong trade relationships to help her island flourish. She and Javier – whose POV we follow for this story – are enjoying a peaceful, idyllic existence with Javier’s iterations and a growing vN population. Their only major problem is sex – Javier wants it, but Amy refuses him because, with his failsafe, she’s not sure if he can choose to have sex with her or if he’s just programmed to. Having seen how humans exploit vN, she’s afraid of doing the same to him, but the issue is causing a lot of tension between them.

But obviously their wonderful life won’t last long anyway. Amy already terrifies humanity because she doesn’t have a failsafe and isn’t forced to adore and protect humans. Now she’s probably the most powerful being on the planet, but without any concern for her creators. Then when she takes drastic measures to protect the island from a high-tech intruder, Javier also becomes deeply concerned about the power she wields because she holds power over other vN too.

With his mind in tumult, Javier makes some poor decisions and is manipulated into doing something so terrible that he loses Amy, his iterations, and his home, while unleashing a danger that could start an apocalyptic war between humans and vN. He spends the rest of the novel trying desperately to be reunited with Amy, while society edges toward chaos around him.

Like vN, iD is a mixture of action and dire adventure tied up with social revolution. But most importantly – and most enjoyably – it explores an experience of being AI, specifically the experience of being a humanoid robot designed to be a servant and sex slave for humans. What does this mean for the relationship between humans and AI? As Ashby has pointed out, the vN aren’t human but they think of themselves as people. They simply have a different kind of subjectivity, a different way of experiencing the world. But what happens when the humans believe vN aren’t ‘real’ people? The possibilities are often scary, but that’s exactly what makes this such an interesting, memorable series.

vN was told from the perspective of Amy, who enjoyed a privileged life in a relatively normal family and had a lot to learn about the status of vN in the world. Javier’s POV gives us what is undoubtedly the more common experience for vN – a much more sordid world of disempowerment and sexual exploitation. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Javier’s very brief childhood, when he was abandoned by his father and locked up in a Nicaraguan prison. He grew very quickly, both mentally and physically. After escaping from prison he remained homeless and unemployed, prostituting himself to humans and finding something similar to a home only during brief stints as someone’s sexual companion. While he often lacks knowledge that a human adult would have attained, it’s often easy to forget that Javier is only four years old, especially since he’s had more sexual experiences than most humans would have in a lifetime, and he already has thirteen children and one grandchild.

iD might have been more of a love story if Javier’s strategy wasn’t to fuck his way back to the woman he loves. But that’s what he does best – he’s great in bed, and his failsafe means that his pleasure is dependant on his partner’s. He plans to seduce the people he needs to get to Amy. However, if sex is Javier’s greatest strength, it’s also one of his greatest, most disturbing weaknesses. Because of his failsafe, Javier can’t choose to say no to a human and can’t fight them, which basically means that any human can easily rape him if they want to. Because he’s a robot they can’t hurt him physically, but that doesn’t make it any less of a violation.

Take into account the fact that this applies to all vN except Amy and you’ll get an idea of the content in this novel. For example, there’s a brothel that specialises in vN children, recalling the paedophile from book one who kept two child-sized vN so that he wouldn’t harm ‘real’ children. It’s not for sensitive readers, but if you can handle it, it raises all sorts of weighty questions and ideas. Should morality change when we’re dealing with robot people instead of human people? What kinds of relationships can exist between humans and vN?

As Ashby stated in last week’s guest post, the people who use vN are typically those who want to avoid the difficulties of relationships with humans. They want someone who they can treat like a machine, who can be relied on to behave in simple, predictable ways, and, sometimes, who can be abused in ways that would be criminal with a human. In the prologue, a scientist who seems to have something like Asperger’s describes his relationship with the vN Susie as his ideal, because he gets all the sex he wants without having to deal with any of the emotion.

That’s not to say humans and vN can’t have meaningful relationships. In book one, Amy’s father Jack really seemed to love his vN wife Charlotte. As Javier mentions in iD, that is the ideal that vN hope for – to find a human (preferably a rich one) who will shelter but not abuse them. Javier often receives such offers, and he genuinely likes some of the people he sleeps with. I find it sad though – he doesn’t really consider falling in love with a human; he can only hope that he won’t be abused by one. The potential long-term relationships he can have with human are inevitably compromises – a far cry from the companionship he shared with Amy.

And the vN can feel love – it’s what Amy and Javier feel for each other, despite their difficulties. They feel so much more besides, as the first part of the novel makes clear, as Amy and Javier struggle with the issue of sex. Javier’s sexual advances can be a little bit troubling, given that he keeps pushing while Amy keeps refusing. He’s not violent, but his persistence made me uncomfortable and Amy frequently distance herself from him as a result (which makes him feel like an asshole in turn). However, it’s it’s not Amy who needs protection, but Javier. They already have an intimate relationship – they sleep naked together, kiss, fool around. They are a couple and early on Javier starts calling her his wife. It’s only sex that Amy objects to. But, as Javier rightly points out, she’s being a hypocrite. She’s so worried about his failsafe, yet she refuses to remove it even though she has the power to do so.

I could talk about the nuances of these issues all day, but I should stop now before I spoil the subtleties of this book for you. I will make a few comments on the plot and pace though. The first part of the book really stood out for me – it was just brilliant. We learn a bit about the development of the vN at New Eden Ministries, and the god-complex of the humans behind the new technology. Then Amy’s island offers an amazing futuristic paradise, while the character relationships kept me hooked on the story. When Javier brought this section to an end it felt so devastating that I paused to take it in.

What follows is more frantic and action-packed, but admittedly I didn’t love it quite as much as the preceding parts. It’s Ashby’s depiction of vN experiences and Javier’s character that captured me rather than the story. The ending was also too sentimental for my tastes, but on the other hand it balances out the more harrowing content. Javier’s quest takes precedence, but it’s also tied up with the fact that the vN as a whole also find themselves at the start of either their revolution or their apocalypse – developments that are both exciting and complex. There’s a lot going on, and, as with vN, I sometimes struggled to keep track of all the locations, characters, and objectives. That’s not to say it wasn’t a fantastic read, but I may have to read it again before I read book three, which I will definitely be reading. I seldom read series, so my excitement about books two and three is both rare and telling. Do I even need to mention that I really think you should read this book?

I also suggest you check out some of the interviews and guest posts Madeline has been doing for iD blog tour. She speaks about her books, of course, but also offers broader discussions of the ideas within them:

Guest Posts
On robot, human and other subjectivities at the Little Red Reviewer

On gender at Uncorked Thoughts
On female writers in the sf and dystopian markets at Escapism
On making non-humans seem human at Civilian Reader
On fear and being unable to go home at John Scalzi’s The Big Idea
And for the sake of convenience, here’s another link to Madeline’s Violin in a Void guest post on the relationship between humans and AI.

Interviews
My Bookish Ways
The Quillery
A Fantastical Librarian
Interview with Javier at My Shelf Confessions

Madeline Ashby Guest Post: Human/AI relationships

iD by Madeline AshbyWhen Angry Robot contacted bloggers about a blog tour for Madeline Ashby’s latest novel, iD, I immediately replied. I thought her first novel, vN, was pretty awesome. I jumped at the chance to read iD, the second book in The Machine Dynasty series, adn that review will go up next week.

In the meantime, I asked Madeline to write a guest post about the relationship between humanity and AI, as this is the core of The Machine Dynasty. The vN are self-replicating humanoid robots who were initially created to be servants and sexbots to the poor souls who would be left on Earth after the Rapture (which obviously never happened). Now they’re trying to integrate with human society, but are hampered by their failsafes, which not only prevent them from harming humans but force them to love humans and try to make them happy. And what kind of relationship can you have with someone to whom you can never say no? Someone who could do anything they wanted to you, because you’re not a ‘real’ person? And as a human, what possibilities does a vN represent to you?

Thank you very much Madeline, for writing on this topic for Violin in a Void. She offers ideas that not only shed light on her books, but on our potential relationships with any AI we might create, and the way we often treat each other like machines. 

vN - The First Machine Dynast by Madeline AshbyOne thing I’ve always tried to maintain consistently is the fact that the humans who choose to have relationships with the vN — the self-replicating humanoid machines who populate my stories — are at the end of the line, romantically and personally dysfunctional. They’ve been betrayed, or they’ve betrayed others. They’re assholes who everybody steers clear of, or their proclivities are so specific that they can’t find anybody else in their niche. Or they’re just lazy. I mean, relationships with other human beings are a lot of work. Much of that work can feel pretty tedious. I, for one, suck at sending cards. I don’t believe in them. I think they’re an environmental disaster in the form of a cash-grab masquerading as meaningful sentiment. But people really appreciate those things. Even I do, when I receive them.

So I guess my point is that I can understand the moment when somebody throws his or her hands up and says, “You know what? Fuck it. And fuck them.” And then goes and fucks a bunch of vN because it’s easy, in the same way that finding porn is easy, and the same way that paying for sex is easy, if you know where to find it and you’re willing to go there.

The other thing I tried to do, pretty consistently, was to talk about how past depictions of humanoid robots in popular culture would impact the individual, personal relationships between humans and robots. If you’d only ever seen robots as godless killing machines, or creatures lacking the right “emotion chip,” or whatever, it’s bound to impact your relationship with a robot. Moreover, it’s bound to impact the wider treatment of robots in society. This, by the way, is the exact same problem that people have with limited, stereotypical depictions of women and minorities in pop culture. Those depictions create an expectation of behaviour. They create the culture, and that culture informs our decisions on personal and political levels. (You want to know why we don’t have a sustainable nuclear energy infrastructure across the planet? Go watch The China Syndrome.

With that said, I’m pretty sure that meaningful relationships between humans and robots are possible. A lot of science fiction has dwelt on this. The most moving example is probably a film called Robot & Frank about an elderly man whose care is overseen by a robot. Frank manipulates the robot into committing a burglary with him, and it’s the closest, deepest relationship that Frank has had in years.

What makes me believe that is the way that people already try to program their relationships. Take the recent Kickstarter debacle over a “pick-up artist” manual. Glenn Fleishman summarizes the PUA mindset beautifully:

The PUA world applies algorithms, testing and feedback, and gamification to human interaction, turning women into not just sexual objects but essentially treating that cisgendered biological configuration as a Turing-complete machine in which specifying the right sequence of inputs results in access to specific ports and protocols.

And that’s one thing that’s wrong with a lot of human interaction — the idea that if we just input the right information, we’ll get the access we want, the relationship we want. It’s related to the Nice Guy (™) phenomenon wherein some guys think that feeding enough “niceness” tickets to the female machine will make sex come out. It’s the application of a deterministic, mechanistic model to relationships. Applying that logic to human relationships is reassuring, because it means there are rules to follow and a game to win, but it’s ultimately a limited understanding of humanity’s total potential. We’re bigger than rules. We’re bigger than games. And that’s both terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Up for Review: iD

Last year, I was very impressed with Madeline Ashby’s debut novel, vN, about artificially intelligent robots that had initially been created for sexual purposes, but are now struggling to integrate with human society as people. It offered a lot of ideas about free will, the ‘reality’ of emotion, and the possibilities of AI in human society, with lots of interesting motivations at play between the characters.

vN was the first novel in The Machine Dynasty series, and one of the few novels that had me looking forward to its sequel. Now I have it.

iD by Madeline AshbyiD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot)

NetGalley Blurb:

THE SECOND MACHINE DYNASTY

Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption.

Javier’s quest takes him from Amy’s island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

File Under: Science Fiction [ vN2 | Island in the Streams | Failsafe No More | The Stepford Solution ]

iD will be published on 25 June 2013 by Angry Robot Books.

Links
Goodreads
Angry Robot
Read an excerpt at Tor

About the Author
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and strategic foresight consultant living in Toronto. She has been writing fiction since she was about thirteen years old. (Before that, she recited all her stories aloud, with funny voices and everything.) Her fiction has appeared in Nature, Tesseracts, Escape Pod, FLURB, the Shine Anthology, and elsewhere. Her non-fiction has appeared at BoingBoing.net, io9.com, Tor.com, Online Fandom, and WorldChanging. She is a member of the Cecil Street Irregulars, one of Toronto’s oldest genre writers’ workshops. She holds a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (her thesis was on anime, fan culture, and cyborg theory) and a M.Des. in strategic foresight & innovation (her project was on the future of border security).
Website
Twitter: @MadelineAshby
Goodreads