Review: vN: The First Machine Dynasty, by Madeline Ashby

>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

Amy pinched the skin of her arms. If you couldn’t brag in the brig, where could you? “I’ve got fractal design memory in here. Even if I’m cut up, my body remembers how to repair itself perfectly. I’ll come back in one piece, no matter what.”

“Oh, believe me, dollface, I know. I’ve seen it happen. You put some vN shrapnel in the right culture, and it grows right back. Like cancer.” He snorted. “But whether what grows back is actually you? With all the memories, and all the adaptations? That’s like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

Amy imagined her skin sliced thin as ham, suspended in the shadowy clouds of vN growth medium. Maybe she wouldn’t even miss her mom and dad. Never once seeing their faces or hearing their voices or feeling their arms around her would probably hurt a lot less, if she were smashed into a million pieces.


The film industry, some days, can be rather depressing. Following his work on Lincoln, Steven Spielberg is set to direct the film version of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, a novel of grand ambition but marginal creative substance. Wilson’s novel is an emotionally hands-off tale of a robot uprising that threatens humanity—an end result that is made immediately apparent. Madeline Ashby’s debut novel vN, on the other hand, tells a similar, though much more open-wounded tale of a developing machine supremacy and its uncertain future alongside its flesh and blood creators. vN succeeds where Robopocalypse and others like it fail: it keeps the story human and emotionally grounded—even when the emotions are software and nothing more.

vN is Amy’s story. Amy is the five-year-old daughter of Charlotte and Jack: a von Neuman, self-replicating humanoid mother and an organic “chimp” of a father. With her growth restricted via a specialized, controlled diet, Amy is growing at the rate of a human child, though she is most certainly not human herself. Like her mother, Amy is a vN, a (for the most part) socially accepted creation designed, originally, to be a human companion following the Rapture—to befriend those poor, unfortunate souls left behind. Naturally, such an event did not occur, and vN’s have been integrated into society to varying degrees of success. As the vN species has developed, with different models for different purposes, some have been able to make the transition, to more or less “pass” for human. This is due in large part to the failsafe—a part of a vN’s programming that makes them feel sick when a human is hurt in any way. It’s “a humane response to inhuman behaviour.” When Amy’s grandmother Portia threatens her mother, Amy intervenes—and in the process, learns that her failsafe no longer functions as it should.

vN succeeds because Ashby never contradicts her characters or justifies their humanity and the very human way they are written through unearned means. In fact, without giving anything away, the nature of Amy’s empathic subroutines, through which she is able to function in the specific manner she does, apart from all other vN, is explained in a pseudo-scientifically satisfying manner—not to mention true to the novel’s presented world. It is far more believable than simply falling back on the all-too common trope of artificial intelligence evolving along natural humanistic paths.

Without wanting to beat the Spielberg horse into the ground, vN shares a lot in terms of its emotional journey with the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. While A.I. is more or less the tale of Pinocchio, of a young artificial boy’s journey to become real, vN is about Amy’s journey to accept herself as an artificial life form, and to understand how and why she is and will always be different from others—from humans, her organic father included. Similar to A.I., however, is the overwhelming focus on family—both the traditional organic definition of, and the vN clades of similar models banding together (and in some cases, attempting to kill one another).

Amy’s journey is set in motion when she succumbs to instinct, violating a social contract of sorts that, until the end of the book’s prologue, helped maintain a level of peace and comfort between humans and the vN communities among them. In doing so, in exhibiting a sort of empathy both wonderful and to be feared, Amy is involved in an incident that pries her from her parents, and simultaneously from her childhood. The issue of family and being removed from one’s family and forced to find definition through other means is further accentuated by four modes of abandonment presented throughout the novel: Portia abandoning (in a way) her offspring in an attempt to perfect her model; Jack’s father abandoning him for falling in love with and marrying a vN; Javier abandoning his children to fend for themselves, believing in a more machine-like sense of development through world, not parental, interaction; and at the highest level, society—humans, creators of the vN in the first place—wanting to abandon their creation should they, in any way, exhibit autonomy not constricted by their failsafes.

In many ways, vN is a love letter to science fiction nerds of all kinds. Amy’s journey is tragic, its final destination uncertain, but along the way, Ashby litters the book with enough casual film and video game references to lighten the mood: the xenomorphs from Alien and a pair of Portal references in particular stood out. (Remember: the cake is a lie…)

vN feels like the start of something new. Whether or not Ashby has more planned for this world and these characters I’m not sure, but Amy’s journey, and more importantly where her journey comes to a close, leaves me feeling as if this story is just getting started. I’m excited to see what she does next.


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