(Reprinted with Permission. Original copy at The John Doppler Effect)

For this month’s Read/Write, I’d like to shake things up a bit by introducing a new reviewer. Please welcome Corey Furman, a talented new author whose debut work, The Way of All Flesh, is sure to knock you out of your cybersocks.

Corey: Hey, John, thanks for inviting me in.

vN, by Madeline AshbyJohn: Today, we’ll be reviewing Madeline Ashby’s vN. I enjoyed vN; it’s a lively cyberpunk action-adventure coming-of-age robot cannibalism story set in a world where synthetic humanoids — the Von Neumann androids — are built to serve man.

Corey: Is this going to be the next big thing in serving man?

John: “It’s a cookbook!” No, not in this tale. The vN have their own food chock full of nutrients and everything a growing robot needs. But because Von Neumann machines are self-replicating, they’re deliberately kept hungry to prevent them from replicating. It’s kind of sick, really.

Corey: I actually thought Ashby’s treatment of vN food was one of the most creative aspects of the work. Ultimately, it was a useful jumping off point for necessary plot twists involving digestive acids. Mmm, just thinking about carbon-laced pancakes with a goodly dollop of ionic gel makes me hungry! But not too many… it’s best to stay a little starved.

John: That starvation leads to trouble for the book’s protagonist, Amy. Amy is always hungry, so when she’s attacked by her homicidal grandmother, Portia, Amy does what comes naturally to a vN: she eats Granny.

Corey: There just aren’t enough books out there sporting homicidal grannies.

John: Or cannibalistic grandchildren. The vN are equipped with a failsafe that causes them to shut down if they witness violence against humans. Not Amy’s granny, though. Granny has somehow bypassed the failsafe. And now that Amy has incorporated bits of granny into her own system, she is no longer subject to the failsafe either.

Corey: It’s impossible to miss Asimov’s influence. The failsafe boils down to help, obey and love all humans, and is what drives just about every aspect of the personalities of the various vN characters. In Amy’s case, the reader is kept in the dark as to precisely when her failsafe, er, failed, either when she snacks on granny Portia or from inception. Regardless, the failsafe doesn’t prevent vN from hurting one another, and that allows her to snack on others. This is good and bad for her, because it allows her to absorb the traits of other vN, effectively upgrading herself, but it also enables her just-consumed grandmother to hack her code. Portia then rides shotgun inside Amy’s head through the entire story, and only comes out when it is either least or most convenient.

There are other vN in the story of course, not least of which are Javier and his son, Junior.

John: Compared to Amy’s character, Javier didn’t seem as well-developed, but I think that may have been a deliberate choice by the author. Amy represents a new stage in the evolution of the vN, and she’s achieved what Javier has unconsciously been striving for: humanity. Javier is utterly unconcerned about his offspring — his iterations — while Amy is intensely maternal and puts herself in jeopardy to protect Junior. It’s an intriguing contrast.

Corey: An interesting and creative aspect is the very detailed vN life cycle. Amy starts out in the story as a robot child, kept small by an institutionalized starvation diet. She doesn’t “grow up” until she eats Portia. Shortly after being introduced to Javier, he gives birth to Junior. Throughout the story, we get the sense that vN are less like robots and more like a different kind of organic. I think one of the strongest displays of this is Javier’s failsafe-driven response to Amy: he loves her as he would a human.

John: Bingo. Family predominates, as the once-isolated Amy wrestles with her connection to her human father, and her new-found connection to Javier, Junior, her clademates, Granny, and even her bloodthirsty — er, carbon-thirsty — cousins. It’s one of several strong themes in the story, and an aspect of the book I really enjoyed.

Corey: Indeed. Another theme worth noting is how man mistreats his creation, and Ashby does a good job at presenting that in fresh ways. For instance, there are vN indigent who are forced to recycle their skin for money and eat cast off detritus to survive. Javier is on the run because he is guilty of “serial iteration” — having produced too many children. One of the aspects of this that may make some uncomfortable is the legal right of humans to use vN children in the expression of their pedophilia.

John: Absolutely, that was unsettling. The Von Neumanns were created to serve. They’re wired to gain satisfaction from their servitude. I think that underscored the plight of the vN more than any other element in the book. It reminded me of Pris, Blade Runner’s “pleasure model”, taken to an extremely disturbing new level. “I’m a pedophile,” says one character in Ashby’s book. “vN are the only outlet for the urges God chose to test me with. Otherwise, I might be tempted to hurt real children.”

And the chilling suggestion here is that vN are not “real children”, so it’s okay to hurt them. Awful, yet all too plausible.

Corey: Though I take it further, man’s mistreatment of his sentient creation is a theme I share in my own book, The Way of All Flesh.

John: Yes, I was struck by some of the common themes between your novel and vN. They make an excellent counterpoint to one another.

Overall, I found vN to be an entertaining read, except for one glaring flaw: Ashby’s ham-handed attempts to shoehorn contemporary pop culture references into a future milieu.

Corey: The cake is a lie… Seriously — some will undoubtedly enjoy it, but anyone attempting to read this book should be prepared to be bludgeoned with them. Either that, or treat it like a big Easter egg hunt!

John: Those references weren’t disruptive enough to spoil the book for me, and taken as a whole, vN is an clever and creative spin on time-tested themes. I give it four self-replicating stars out of five.

Corey: Respectfully, I’d have to give it three stars out of five, down to two were it not so creative in certain aspects. It’s worth a read if this is a genre you enjoy, but I would have preferred Ashby use a much finer needle and thread to stitch the scenes together.

Have you read vN? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!