iD by Madeline Ashby

iD by Madeline AshbyTitle: iD
Series: The Machine Dynasty #2
Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot
25 June 2013
science fiction
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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.

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:


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.

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,,, 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).
Twitter: @MadelineAshby


Review of vN by Madeline Ashby

vN - The First Machine Dynast by Madeline Ashby

Title: vN
Series: The Machine Dynasty #1
Madeline Ashby
31 July 2012
Angry Robot
science fiction
own copy

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.