Madeline Ashby's vN chronicles the life of Amy, a sentient vN-model robot born into a mixed robot-human family. Amy's human father has slowed her rate of growth to that of a human child, in hopes of integrating her seamlessly into human society, but when Amy turns five her maternal grandmother, Portia (who is a perfect copy of Amy and her mother), shows up and tries to steal Amy away. In the ensuing battle Amy attacks Portia, literally devouring her whole. Consuming Portia's body gives Amy enough fuel to dramatically accelerate her growth, rendering her a fully formed adult with the memories and experiences of a five-year-old. It also lodges Portia permanently in Amy's consciousness, and inadvertently reveals that Amy lacks the failsafe which all vN robots in Ashby's universe are supposedly equipped with, which prevents them from causing—or even witnessing—human suffering. In the wake of this revelation Amy is forced to become a fugitive, joining forces with other vN models in her quest to find a way to fix her failsafe, rejoin human society and reunite with her family.
vN is a dazzlingly ambitious novel. The narrative is tightly woven, with cliffhangers and perfectly timed punchlines, creating a suspenseful, difficult to put down read. The novel's only serious weakness is its worldbuilding, which feels less thought-out than the narrative structure or the characters. However, the originality of Ashby's protagonist and the tight plot structure make these flaws secondary to the novel's successes.
The book starts with a kind of prologue, told from the point of view of Amy's father. An average middle-class human man living in the suburbs with his robot wife and daughter, he introduces the reader to the history and current events of Ashby's world. This supposedly familiar, classic setup, reminiscent of '50s and '60s SF, lulls the reader into expecting the story to be conventional. However, this mundane beginning allows Ashby to get most of the worldbuilding out of the way before introducing her true protagonist—a five-year-old girl in the body of a woman, a robot raised to be part of human society, a child who has eaten her grandmother. All of these taken together make Amy's story unusual, and her first-person narrative is exploited to the max thanks to Ashby's trick of getting all the worldbuilding out of the way first. Amy's core characteristic is that she's lost and bewildered by the world, slowly trying to piece together the truth about her family, her history, and herself. Ashby's prologue makes Amy's voice more powerful, as the reader is always better informed about Amy's world than she is.
However, though Ashby's characters are complicated and thought-out, the world they inhabit is less intricately constructed. Despite humanity having created sentient, humanoid robots, it appears to have no use for its own creations. Most vN appear to be homeless, jobless creatures who spend their lives worrying about where their next meal is going to come from and raiding dumpsters and junkyards for spare parts. Those who can attract humans to take care of them financially—for example, young-looking, attractive female vN—often do so out of desperation. Amy herself discovers this when she realizes that most people assume her mother married her father for a chance at a stable life rather than out of love, as Amy had always assumed.
Ashby tries to draw a parallel between vN and historically oppressed groups, showing how robots have been sentenced to poverty and squalor due to human xenophobia, but the analogy never quite works. Why humans would refuse to put the powerful, sentient robots they've invented, who are guaranteed never to harm them, to a variety of uses remains a mystery. And assuming the world decided to reject robots, it's unclear why they were allowed to remain useless vagabonds stalking the human world. Precisely why humans are xenophobic enough to shun robots but not enough to eradicate them is never explored. The robots' oppression adds drama and tension to Ashby's narrative but the world outside of Amy's story never quite adds up.
For example, when Amy is revealed to have a malfunctioning failsafe, essentially proving that any robot, for no apparent reason, can suddenly lose that which makes them safe for humans to interact with, the human world doesn't panic. There are no witch hunts; robots are not suddenly collectively rounded up. In fact humans appear to be broad-minded and trusting enough to not only allow other vN models to continue hanging about the place, but to let Amy disguise herself under a false name and pretend to be a different robot of the same model.
The novel's shortfalls when it comes to worldbuilding are never more problematic than when Ashby chooses to deal with pedophilia. The book implies that pedophiles are almost the only group who have managed to provide employment and find a use for vNs, which, even if one wants to assume humans would only have use for sentient robots as sex toys, comes off as exaggerated and unbelievable.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Amy, working as a waitress at a restaurant that serves vN food, encounters a father with two small daughters who are both vNs. The warm familial relationship reminds Amy of her own family, and of her own father who kept her growing at a human pace. In the midst of these fond memories Amy realizes that the "father" in this case is a convicted pedophile who's acquired his "daughters" in order to molest them, knowing such a thing would not be considered a crime against a vN. In fact most of the women robots Amy encounters, if they're in a relationship with a human man, are being raped, abused, or used to fulfill illegal fantasies.
The scene at the restaurant perfectly exemplifies vN's strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand the scene is beautifully executed, packs a visceral punch, and advances Amy's characterization by bringing her one step closer to confronting the harsh realities of vN existence she'd been shielded from since childhood. On the other hand, it feeds into the overall unbelievable and oversimplified world that Ashby has created.
Ashby's skill at characterization, however, greatly overshadows her failures at worldbuilding. Amy's journey is relatable and compelling. She feels at once utterly foreign, a child in a grown-up body who is constantly talking to the ghost of the grandmother she ate—and totally familiar. Amy's journey is the typical story of adolescence. Shocked out of her suburban, middle-class environment she slowly discovers the lies her parents told her about the world, sees injustice and violence, exploitation and selfishness, and has to decide for herself how to proceed: whether to try and save the world—as her mother would have wanted—or burn it to the ground as her grandmother is urging her to do.
Portia, on the other hand, is pragmatic and experienced, and thus the perfect counter to Amy's persistent optimism and naiveté. Mother to countless generations, the general of her own army, Portia is the de facto leader of the robot revolution. Her aim is to harness Amy's abilities to her advantage and take revenge on the human world for abusing vNs. Powerful, ruthless, cunning, she's a woman who has sacrificed everything in the service of a higher purpose. Where Amy wants to believe the stories her father told her as a child about coexistence and acceptance, Portia has experienced the real world and believes it to be beyond salvation. At the same time, Amy and Portia are believable as an estranged grandmother and granddaughter, part of the same family, sharing just enough personality traits and history to understand where the other is coming from, making their conflicts more personal and meaningful. All of this makes the discussions and arguments Portia and Amy have in the privacy of their shared head, and on the occasions when Portia manages to take control of Amy's body and enforce her own will, the best parts of the book.
The last main character in the novel is Javier, Amy's number one ally and companion. A male vN model, his ancestors were originally designed to work in the rain forests and so were endowed with unusually strong legs that allowed them to jump to great heights. Like all vN he's capable of "iterating," a process of self cloning which takes the form of a pregnancy. Javier, a professional fugitive, tries to leave an iteration behind whenever he's able, spreading his model around the world, making sure his kind is more difficult to eradicate. A "serial father." Javier is familiar with the human world and is much better equipped to deal with it than Amy. While Portia spends her time whispering resistance and revolution in Amy's ear, Javier takes Amy by the hand and introduces her to the world she's been sheltered from, taking the time to explain things along the way.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Javier is his relationship with humans. Like all vN, Javier's failsafe predisposes him to obey humans, not merely avoid their suffering. (How one leads to the other and how this trait is manifested in other vN models is never explored, which is again a symptom of unfortunate worldbuilding.) The most chilling example of this, which Javier cites when discussing his wariness of being in relationships with humans, is a woman who became his lover only to later sell one of his children to a pedophile. Javier was unable to stop her, unable to stop loving her, even, as his programming forced him to feel, emotionally, that anything she did was just and correct.
Javier's story raises many questions about the free will of vNs—can they consent to anything in a relationship with a human, if their programming effectively strips away their ability to contradict a human's actions? Ashby doesn't explore these themes within the narrative—which is a shame—but she does manage to draw an extremely compelling portrait of Javier, a man bruised and damaged by too many relationships with human women, while at the same time, by force of personality or programming, someone who constantly seeks out the company of humans and has to fight his own nature to stay away from them. A pragmatist and a romantic, a father who cares deeply for his children and then abandons them as soon as they're able to fend for themselves, Javier is a believable mix of contradictions and fits in perfectly with Portia and Amy's narratives.
Ashby's book is full of references to classics of the robot genre. Using clever quips and hints, Ashby lets the reader know she's well aware of her place in the grand scope of robot narratives. Dishes at a vN restaurant are named after iconic phrases or characters from Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner; the writing on a van which serves as a mobile vN prison is "Isaac's Electronics." But although she references works that have dealt with human/robot cohabitation and issues of free will and exploitation, her book has little to say on these topics. Where Ashby shines are her characters and their relationships with each other—the sad, complicated, dark, interesting portraits she paints of machines who are never quite certain where their similarities to humans begin and end.
Marina Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds degrees in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She's fluent in four languages and can order a stiff drink in a dozen more. In her spare time she enjoys writing articles, reviews, and short stories as well as fawning over other people's cats.