Review: vN by Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby

Angry Robot
The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review.
Released July 31, 2012
448 pages
Robots / Science Fiction / Adventure

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Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot.

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 her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

This book caused my brain to explode in the first fifty pages. It took weeks to piece it back together and then I made the mistake of reading the sequel, only to have my brain explode again. I think I’ve pieced it together, but some pieces may have gotten switched or squished up a little bit or left out altogether. Basically if this entire review devolves into a series of “OMG! ROBOTS AND THEY REPLICATE! AND VIRUSES! AND EATING YOUR GRANDMOTHER!”, you’ll understand why – my brain exploded. Twice.

Side note: It's only $4.89 as a Kindle e-book if you're interested in trying it out.

vN opens with Amy as a little girl on a strict diet to keep her small and growing in the equivalent of a human child. She is a von Neumann machine – a humanoid robot who could easily pass as flesh and blood if it wasn’t for the fact that there were thousands of others that look just like her. The vN were created by a twisted religious group as companions for those left behind after the rapture. When the rapture didn’t happen and the religious group’s leader got thrown into jail, the robots were released to the highest bidder and have now been sort of integrated into society. vN grow based on the amount of food (made of trace metals, minerals, the sort of things a robot would be made out of) consumed and they aren’t meant to stay small for very long. So when Amy’s grandmother shows up and attacks her mother, Amy tries to protect her mother and ends up eating her grandmother, who happens to be a psychopath who integrates with Amy’s programming, essentially riding along inside Amy’s body.

This all happens in the first 35 pages! Robots that replicate and eat their grandmothers after being on a forced diet for five years and then integrating the crazy lady into her own mind! That’s more than what happens in most books. In 35 PAGES!

So the rest of the story is a twisted road trip / running from the law until you get to the end and things just go crazy again. Amy meets fellow vN Javier, who is being taken to vN prison for iterating too much – meaning he eats a lot and has a baby that claws its way out of his belly after a certain length of gestation. Yes, boy robots can have babies too. That’s how they create more boy robots. Though he is technically younger than Amy, he’s been on his own since nearly the beginning and it far more familiar with the cruelty of humanity and the real world. Amy latches on and he’s pulled into the chaos.

The dichotomy between Amy – the childlike innocence and discovering the world for the first time – with her grandmother, Porsche – the murderous crazy lady who wants to iterate an entire army of vN without the fail safe so they can kill the humans – is fascinating. They live inside the same body, but Prosche is stronger, regularly coming to the surface to participate in terrible violence that protects Amy while spending the rest of her time whispering venomous thoughts directly into Amy’s circuit board.

This book is full of violence of all kinds. There is plenty of robot on robot violence with robot on human violence liberally splashed across the chapters to make things interesting. Ashby writes action scenes in vividly kinetic ways that turned her book into a clear movie inside my head. Perhaps that’s partly why my brain melted?

This book is really difficult to explain because it is so unusual. It’s an adventure story that flies across the Pacific Northwest as well as a dystopian novel post-environmental disaster and a study on what separates humans from machines. There are layers of philosophical study that makes me wish I was in school again just so I could write a paper about all the crazy. Maybe my brain would work again.

When the plot looks like it’s going to settle into a more formulaic path in the last quarter, I was afraid I would be disappointed with the conclusion. I shouldn’t have doubted Ashby because the climax of the story is the craziest part. I had to read several sections several times, not because it’s difficult to follow but rather because my brain started leaking out of my ears and I couldn’t comprehend all the crazy that was going down. This book is full of the unexpected and some of the most intriguing and surprising robot lit I’ve consumed in recent memory.

Ashby’s writing makes it easy to follow the crazy. She stays out of her way, not getting too fancy with her writing style which allows her ideas and characters take center stage. I never got distracted by an extraneous description or info dump, but rather stayed well buried in the story, looking over Amy’s shoulder. Her concepts are impressive and it’s clear that she loves science fiction and robots as much as I do. The final pages open a door to a potentially happily ever after, but knowing the human race and the fact that there is a sequel, the victories found by the end are only temporary.

I’ll be reviewing the sequel iD on Monday, which was both more of the same and yet completely different. If you’re looking for a robot book and aren’t too squeamish about graphically described violence, the The First Machine Dynasty series is definitely one to try. Maybe your brain won’t melt, but you’ll definitely be taken on an interesting ride.


Angry Robot is awesome and sent me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. They publish some of the weirdest, best books you haven't heard of yet.