In the future, anticipating the End of Days, a megachurch pours money into artificial intelligence to develop von Neumann machines ("vN"), a series of self-replicating humanoids meant as companions for those who don't make it into Heaven. When Judgement Day fails to arrive, these human-like robots are left on Earth to live among human beings. They are programmed with a "failsafe"-- a mechanism that makes them unable to withstand seeing a human being hurt, in order to ensure that they will never harm a human.
Amy Peterson is a vN living in a mixed human-vN family. She is a replica (an "iteration") of her vN mother, Charlotte. While normally vN mature to adulthood in a year, Amy's human father has kept her on a strict diet that stunts her growth, keeping her maturation at a human rate. At 5 years old, Amy is highly unusual for a vN, with a child's appearance when most others her age have reached adulthood long ago. While trying to protect her mother from her grandmother Portia, Amy eats her grandma, integrating Portia's synthetic body into her own, which causes an instantaneous growth spurt, pushing her into her adult form. At the same time, Portia's consciousness is absorbed into Amy's own memory banks and Amy discovers her failsafe has failed as well. With her grandmother inside her head, Amy goes on the run as the police and government officials try to track her down.
There is plenty to think about in vN
. In terms of scientific and technological progress, author Madeline Ashby is exploring how artificial intelligence might fit (or not fit) into human society. vN are treated as foreign entities by humans, tolerated but not quite accepted with human reactions toward them ranging from the sympathetic to disgust. An interlude in the middle of the book has Amy working at a cosplay restaurant where all the workers are vN and the customers are human. As a waitress, Amy has to wear different outfits (eg. nurse, cowgirl) and is essentially part of the restaurant's entertainment, play-acting a role for humans. I think this is meant to show how, despite their sentience, vN have difficulty finding a place in a human society where many people want to see them as merely robots and machines, placing them in an uncomfortable position between person and object.
Also explored is the relationship between parent and child. At its core, vN
is really about family, growing up and belonging, and Ashby draws parallels between the parent-child relationship with the vN ability to self-replicate. A number of vN characters are compared to their "mothers" or "fathers", the vN that they are replicated from, questioning if children can transcend their hereditary influences. Amy's father Jack also serves as an example of how parents can sometimes decide things for their children, in order to ensure a good life for their child, but in reality, this decision can be damaging. By restricting Amy's food so she can grow up at the same rate as a human child, Jack hopes that it will help her intergrate better into human society, but it also hints of child abuse, since while Amy feels no pain at the lack of nourishment, she does mention feeling a constant hunger and emptiness. It is also this hunger that drives her to eat her grandma.
In terms of the plotline, vN
is a fairly typical on-the-run/road trip story. The writing is somewhat disjointed, most noticeably in the first half of the book and during action scenes. There are not enough explanations or descriptions for the background and setting so the book is difficult to get into. I would have liked more information on how the world in vN
came to be the way it is. A lot of scientific- and technical-sounding terminology is used without only vague allusions to their real meaning and never get fully explained until well into the story. In the second half of the book, the writing flowed more smoothly and the narrative turns toward uncovering Portia's and Charlotte's past, and the book takes on a more typical hero-looking-for-answers storyline. It was enjoyable to follow Amy through her journey as she discovers her own special qualities as a vN and learns the truth about the antagonistic relationship between her mother and grandmother. However, the plot becomes predictable at this point and while vN offers plenty of food for thought, it stays within conventional tropes and plotlines rather than going into more subversive territory. It doesn't challenge the idea of what a robot story is.
Still, there is plenty to like about this book and science fiction fans should definitely check it out. vN
is full of fresh and interesting ideas and the steady pace of the plot as well as the many likeable characters will keep readers' attentions. The writing could use some polishing up, but I like that Ashby is well versed in contemporary pop culture, seamlessly weaving references to science fiction, anime and online culture into the narrative. It seems that a sequel will be coming out as well, and I know I will definitely be looking out for that.I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review.