Anyone who even has an inkling about what goes on over with Angry Robot Books, has been hearing about vN by Madeline Ashby for a while now. Ever since the British publishers first showed up on the scene with things like Moxyland and Sixty-One Nails, anything they put out is instantly on my radar. vN was showing up on my radar more than its brethren however. All the early buzz was ridonkously positive. Also, go click on the Goodreads link and look at that cover. Angry Robot hits another home run in cover design. Clearly, I nabbed this one in the “brandy new” stage.
I was not disappointed.
Back of the Book time!
Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine – a self-replicating humanoid robot.
For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic / synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks them, young Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.
Now she’s on the run, carrying her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive. She’s growing quickly, and learning too. Like the fact that in her, and her alone, the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has stopped working… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.
This is one of those cases where the Back of the Book does not do the Inside of the Book justice. Not one eye-ota. Not that the Back of the Book is lying or misleading. All those things described happen. There’s just a lot more going on than those paragraphs can encompass. I can understand the difficulty the Back of the Book guy at Angry Robot had though. I’m having a hard time deciding which angle of attack to take without ruining anything for anyone. I’m going to start with a tweet I sent out a couple days ago even though quoting myself is a bit meta.
Holy amazeballs. 50 pages into vN by
@MadelineAshby and it’s floored me. This is what people must have felt reading Asimov when it was new.
Upon finishing the book, I still stand by that statement. Years after something enters the public consciousness, it’s hard to see the landmark it creates. When I read Asimov the first time as a kid, I already knew the effects it had. Maybe not specifics in an academic kind of way, but I had already read things influenced by it. vN is a landmark book for sci-fi and robot fiction in particular. Every piece of fiction I read from here on out touching on AI will be filtered through this experience. This is the feeling that I imagine people felt reading Asimov when it was brandy new.
To dust off my film degree and use some examples I’m sure everyone will know… vN is like The Matrix for people in high school in the late 90s, or Star Wars was for my dad in the 70s. There is before. There is after. And if you get to see it fresh, you can gain a whole new perspective on it.
This book is smart. There’s an underlying philosophy to it with the nature and evolution of AI. I would rank this with Neal Stephenson’s Anatham or China Miéville’s Embassytown for philosophical intelligence. It’s specific and not blatant, no one stops to have deep thoughts out loud or anything. But it feels very well thought out and complete. So even if it hangs in the background, it still permeates into the pages throughout. This book is also very plausible. Like Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising, vN is a logical extrapolation of where society could end up. That adds a little bit of creep to it.
Certain parts of this book sneak up on you until you realize things have been happening for a couple chapters. You can follow along with the character growth for Amy right along but with, Javier, another vN she meets along the way, the growth is very sly. I find it very satisfying when an author can sneak things like that under my radar.
One thing I saw on twitter recently about vN, was a comment about how the book was a lot darker than expected. Oh yeah. Like woah. Even hearing people talk about it before hand, it still caught me off guard. Which is why I feel ok talking about it. Because I’ll bet it’ll still get you even being forewarned. But these dark and unexpected moments are balanced out wonderfully with moments that are funny or touching. I snarfed with laughter two pages out from a deeply dark moment. It felt very real and authentic because I’m the type of person who will poke fun of something and laugh on the wrong end of the emergency room. Would that translate to someone else who doesn’t have my weird timing with humor? I can’t tell that, but I got a lot of extra feeling from the book because of the humorous moments sprinkled into vN.
So I love this book to death but I don’t think it’s quite perfect. The background to the vNs is something I really hope comes out in a sequel or “not a sequel but set in the same world.” These AI were designed by fundamentalists to stick around after the rapture to help out the ‘unfortunates.’ There’s a lot of potential there. It wasn’t crucial to this story but it could have been and I kept waiting for it to come up to the forefront. The ending…. eh, I don’t like to talk about endings on this. When I closed the book on the last page I wasn’t sure on it. It had to sit and marinate in my head for a while but I decided it’s right for the book and something I can get behind. Because of all the thought and philosophy in the book, it kind of concentrates there at the end. Again, I liked the way it ended, but it took some thought and processing to get there so this is kind of a warning not to give up on it and let it take it’s time to sink in.
So I’ve rambled a lot about this book but that’s because vN is a ramble worthy tale. The expectations were pretty high for this book, higher than I would normally attribute to a new author, but Ashby his the mark easy. I would be extremely surprised if this book did not garner some nominations and awards. vN has changed the way I will look at AI stories.