August 29, 2012

Book Review: vN

vN, a novel by Madeline Ashby and released by Angry Robot Books this summer, is the first book I read on my Kindle. I downloaded it on a whim, curious about straight-up sci-fi as written by a woman who isn't Ursula LeGuin.

It turns out, vN felt more Philip K. Dick than Ursula LeGuin, but either way: that's good company to be in, don't you think?

vN by Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot Books
July 31, 2012
416 pages
vN is a fun ride through a futuristic world in which humanoid machines (Robots? Androids? They're called vN, after their creator...) exist to protect whatever humanity remains on earth after the Rapture.

But when the Rapture never happens, the creator of the robots retires in disgrace, and the robots themselves self-replicate (iterate) with abandon, creating a new class of sub-people who, in turn, make up the new face of homelessness, poverty and exploitation.

Because these robots were designed to help humanity, they have a "failsafe" built in.  They physically cannot hurt human beings. If they even see a human being getting hurt, their failsafe fires, and their hardware fries.  So the vN quickly learn....if a person's in danger, look away.  It's the only way to protect their internal systems.

And the looking away thing? It reminds me a hell of a lot more of human indifference than any robot reticence...and I don't think that's an accident.

In this world we meet Amy, a little vN-girl who lives with mixed parents: her mom's a robot, dad's a human. They keep her small so she can grow up like a real girl.  She's got the emotional maturity of a kid, but the intelligence and skills of a full-fledged robot...so when her mother comes under attack from her evil Granny, Amy steps up and defends her mother...ingests her Granny...and sadly, also Granny's memory, which infects Amy like a cancer.

Because Granny? She's bad news. And Granny? Her failsafe's broken. And Granny? Yeah, she's a killer. With Granny stuck inside of her, Amy's all those things and more.

TO me, it felt like Pinocchio meets Blade Runner. (And in a nice Dick reference, there's a chain-restaurant in the book called Electric Sheep, paying homage to Blade Runner's original title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Love it.)

The plot's exciting...in fact, the first few chapters are so utterly action-packed that I wondered more than once if Ashby was ever going to slow it down and let her readers catch their breaths.  She did...but I was soon panting again.

Amy grows quickly to full-size after eating Granny. She suddenly resembles any other vN of her model, and tries to evade capture from those who want to punish her, study her, eat her...you name it, people and vN are after Amy for it. She has only one ally: Javier, a handsome vN with incredible jumping skills, and a penchant for trouble and iteration. (Translation: he's made so many new versions of himself, the law's after him, as well.)

There's an interesting dynamic here, though. He's suave, Amy's gorgeous, but I spent much of the second half of the book hoping they wouldn't get it on, if only because in my brain, Amy stayed nearly the same age as my daughter. It felt rather icky to imagine her with Javier in that way, because emotionally, she's a child.

They're chased up and down the West Coast, hitting up a futuristic, earthquake-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area before attempting to cross the ocean to a vN safe haven. Chaos follows them, though, and the action continues up to the very end.

Ashby's prose is tight and smart. She speaks the language of techies everywhere: prototypes, iterations, patches, memory leaks, bluescreens, viruses. It's accessible science fiction, grounded here on Earth and in a reality that doesn't seem too farfetched.

So I say check it out. It's available online and in bookstores, so get it! What are you waiting for?

Happy reading!


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