lunes, 25 de junio de 2012

vN by Madeline Ashby

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest that you read this review while listening to I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project (Spotify link, Youtube link).

In vN, Madeline Ashby's debut novel, you will find robots. Lots of robots (and some of them are very angry, by the way). But not your average kind of android, no. These robots are von Neumann machines or vNs: humanoid machines that, given enough raw materials (food) are able to replicate, to iterate (almost) perfect copies of themselves.

The main protagonist of the novel is Amy, a young vN with a very peculiar family: her mother is also a vN (so Amy is, in fact, a clone of her), her father a human and her grandmother... well, I'll come to that in a minute.

The prologue of vN is just awesome. In fact, it could perfectly work as a stand-alone short story. In it, we're introduced to the lives of Amy and her parents. They form a perfect, if atypical, family that has managed to sort out the quirks and odds and ends of human-vN interaction and coexistence. By her parents decision, Amy's diet is controlled so she grows at the same pace that human children do (if fed with enough raw material, vNs can reach adult size in less than a year) and she attends school and plays as suits her age.

The situation is almost idyllic. In fact, these first pages show us a wonderful (though unusual) love story which also raises some deep philosophical questions. What Ashby is asking is not only if you'd grant human status to a robot... but if you'd marry one with all the consequences:
He'd committed the one sin that no human partner of a vN humanoid should ever contemplate: he had doubted the reality of Charlotte's emotions. How many times had he unwittingly made that same mistake? (...)
"Charlie, that's not it-"
"You think I really am just a robot-"
However, the prologue is only the beginning of a trip full of action and surprises. When everything seems to be going nicely... Enter Amy's grandmother, hell ensues (I don't want to spoil the end of this first chapter; suffice it to say that it is... striking).

What follows is a fast-paced story that is very difficult to put down: interesting characters (for instance, Javier and his many "sons"), excellent fight scenes, references to classic science fiction authors and films (including the ISAAC'S ELECTRONICS company, dreams about unicorns and a cocktail called Tears in the rain)... All this while putting forward many cool scientific and philosophical ideas. Because vN is the perfect example of how a book can be, at the same time, action-oriented and thought provoking.

One of the main themes in vN is that of free will. All vNs have a builtin failsafe (think of something along the line of the three laws of robotics) that basically prevents them from hurting humans but also has more profound implications:
von Neumann-type humanoids were "allergic" to hurting humans, or to seeing them hurt. She'd said that's what love meant: the inability to see the other person get hurt without  losing a part of your mind, the desire to do anything and everything to keep it from happening. And all vN everywhere felt that way about humans, whether they lived together or not.
There is much to like in vN but the book also has some problems. Although the worldbuilding is quite good, some things are not fully explained (for instance, how the vNs came to be in the first place) and seem a little bit implausible. Also, some fragments of the novel are more a succession of scenes than part of a tight plot and sometimes the motivations behind the actions of the characters are a bit random.

Taking all into account, vN is a fresh and original novel and an extremely interesting debut. I highly recommend it if you want to read a book which is not your typical humans-vs-robots story. I'm already looking forward to reading the next installment of the series.

Note: I have an interview with Madeline Ashby coming next week. Stay tuned!

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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