fantasy and science fiction book reviewsvN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline AshbyvN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Amy’s kindergarten graduation ceremony was going pretty well until Amy ate her grandmother on stage. Now Amy is on the run and there are lots of people who want to get their hands on her for different reasons. But Amy is only five years old and she doesn’t know where she should go or who she can trust. She’s even more freaked out when she realizes that Granny hasn’t died — she’s sharing the hardware in Amy’s head.

Amy is a self-replicating machine based on the thought experiments proposed in 1948 by John von Neumann (hence the title: “vN”). In Ashby’s story, vNs were created by Christian fundamentalists who were worried about the people who’d be left behind after the Rapture. They created the humanoid robots as companions and helpers and built in a failsafe that prevents them from harming humans. In fact, the failsafe makes the vN love all humans and causes them to shut down when they see blood or violence.

It’s obvious to everyone that Amy’s failsafe has malfunctioned and that suggests that her entire model may be a security threat to humans. Amy soon finds out this is true when she meets her aunties — the vN who’ve iterated from Granny. Amy needs to avoid her aunties, figure out who she is, come to terms with the horrific act she committed, and prove to herself and others that her programming isn’t her destiny. And she needs to get Granny out of her head!

I give Madeline Ashby credit for creativity. Her story riffs off (and has allusions to) Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Isaac Asimov’s ROBOT books, and other old SF, but it’s inventive, smart, and thought-provoking. There’s plenty of action, but there’s also time to stop and think about love, nature vs. nurture, how our experiences as children influence our own parenting style, what it means to be human and, of course, how humans should interact with artificial intelligence. I was fascinated by some aspects of Ashby’s story — especially the ideas about how our “programming” in the form of our genes and upbringing determine our behaviors as adults and how our parents’ personalities are embedded in our own “software” in much the same way Granny was embedded in Amy’s.

Though I loved the ideas Madeline Ashby presents, I had a hard time getting through the latter half of vN. First of all, it’s hard to invest in the story emotionally. One problem, for me, is that vN is gratuitously gory — the stomping and splashing in innocent people’s guts kind of gore — and I was pretty disgusted with some of it. I also found it hard to connect to Amy. Amy grows from kindergartener to adult in a matter of minutes, and I was never sure whether to think of her as a child or an adult. This is Ashby’s intention, I’m sure, and Amy has some trouble with it, too, but it made it hard to understand and relate to Amy, especially when we see very little childlike behavior from her. It’s another aspect of the story that makes vN unique, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into likable.

But I had the most trouble with the plot of vN and this started at the beginning. I never believed the premise about Christians creating vNs as companions and helpers. Won’t there be enough people around after the Rapture to help each other? Wouldn’t the Christians be more likely to spend their time and resources spreading the Gospel instead of trying to provide for those who got left? And if they did create robots as helpers, why would they make them shut down at the sight of blood, just at the time that humans are most likely to need their help? We never see the robots doing the kind of work their creators intended. Apparently the Christians decided that the Rapture got called off (unlikely) and now the vN must be integrated into society. Now instead of doing what they were created to do, they seem to all have their own autonomous lives, living just like humans do — getting married, having kids, and taking jobs away from humans (some humans don’t like them because of this). The only time we see the vN serving and obeying humans is when humans ask them for sex (of any sort, even sex with child robots). This whole premise didn’t make sense to me and didn’t seem necessary for the story (unless the story will continue with a sequel in which the Rapture actually occurs).

There were also several places in the story where I wasn’t sure what was going on, or what the motivations of some of the characters were. Some of the things that happened seemed to come from a random plot idea generator. Then there was the sparkly ending, which seemed like an easy out for all the characters. After an excellent beginning and lots of blood and gore, the ending just seemed wimpy.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of vN which was narrated by Christina Traister. The audio production is very good except that at first it was hard to know when Granny is talking in Amy’s head. I’m guessing that this was in italics in the book, and the narrator did use a lower-pitched husky voice for Granny, but it took me a little while to catch on to this in the audio version. I’m sure, however, that if I had read a review and been aware of this (which you are now), I would have had no trouble. If you’re going to read vN, there’s no reason not to choose the audio version.

So, overall, I was impressed by some aspects of vN, disgusted by some, and disappointed by some. However, I think Madeline Ashby has lots of potential (I don’t always say this!) and I honestly can’t wait to see what she does next. I probably won’t read any sequels to vN but I will absolutely try anything else Madeline Ashby writes.

Published July 31, 2012. 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.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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