vN by Madeline Ashby
vN is the debut novel from Madeline Ashby, a sci-fi story that touches on topics we haven't seen a lot of in science fiction recently - androids, artificial intelligence, consciousness, self awareness, and replication. This is the first story in the Machine Dynasty series, and I think it lays a solid foundation for what is yet to come.
vN tells the story of Amy, a five year old von Neumann (vN) android whose diet has been restricted by her human father and vN mother so that she can grow up at the same speed as a human child rather than the highly accelerated speed of a vN child. Amy goes to school with human children but she doesn't really get the same human childhood experience, especially since her model has been built with a failsafe that will disable her whenever a human is injured or in pain. But one day at a school assembly, her estranged vN grandmother appears and attacks her mother, and Amy reacts immediately by eating her grandmother. Having committed a murder and having demonstrated that her failsafe may be faulty, Amy runs.
You probably noticed from the description that there is a lot going on in vN, and that description is only scratching the surface. This book races from plot point to plot point, it doesn't slow down or get boring, but I found it to be very erratic and hard to follow at times. Things would just happen, Amy would react, more things would happen and Amy would react again. In the context of action sequences, this was very exciting and great to read. In the context of the philosophical discussions about things like machine awareness and conscious thought versus preprogramed responses, the erratic pacing made it hard to really absorb what was being discussed. Personally, I would have loved Ashby to go deeper and really geek out on some of the philosophical discussions, and hopefully she does that in the second book.
This is another personal thing, but I had a bit of a hard time connecting with or really empathizing with the main characters at first. Given that our two main characters, Amy and Javier, are both Androids, I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing - maybe it was deliberate since I did eventually build a connection with Amy and Javier by the end. The idea of getting inside an artificial consciousness is quite fascinating. Amy and Javier think like us in some respects, but their thinking is deeply goal / needs based, which means you can never quite be sure whether or not these androids have true sentience, or just have a very complex adaptive learning based intelligence. For those who are struggling to connect with the characters in vN, I would definitely say push through because as the story progresses, these characters do grow and become more relatable.
vN is a fast paced, action packed, sci-fi thriller that likes to explore some deep philosophical themes during its limited downtime. While the story telling may be erratic and characters may not be easy to relate to, the ending is powerful, sets up the rest of the series, and has me intrigued about what might happen next.
This vN book review was written by Ryan Lawler
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