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vN: The First Machine Dynasty

by Madeline Ashby

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Machine Dynasty (1)

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4433448,828 (3.46)19
"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 them, 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"--Publisher's description.… (more)
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In the future, anticipating the End of Days, a megachurch pours money into artificial intelligence to develop von Neumann machines ("vN"), a series of self-replicating humanoids meant as companions for those who don't make it into Heaven. When Judgement Day fails to arrive, these human-like robots are left on Earth to live among human beings. They are programmed with a "failsafe"-- a mechanism that makes them unable to withstand seeing a human being hurt, in order to ensure that they will never harm a human.

Amy Peterson is a vN living in a mixed human-vN family. She is a replica (an "iteration") of her vN mother, Charlotte. While normally vN mature to adulthood in a year, Amy's human father has kept her on a strict diet that stunts her growth, keeping her maturation at a human rate. At 5 years old, Amy is highly unusual for a vN, with a child's appearance when most others her age have reached adulthood long ago. While trying to protect her mother from her grandmother Portia, Amy eats her grandma, integrating Portia's synthetic body into her own, which causes an instantaneous growth spurt, pushing her into her adult form. At the same time, Portia's consciousness is absorbed into Amy's own memory banks and Amy discovers her failsafe has failed as well. With her grandmother inside her head, Amy goes on the run as the police and government officials try to track her down.

There is plenty to think about in vN. In terms of scientific and technological progress, author Madeline Ashby is exploring how artificial intelligence might fit (or not fit) into human society. vN are treated as foreign entities by humans, tolerated but not quite accepted with human reactions toward them ranging from the sympathetic to disgust. An interlude in the middle of the book has Amy working at a cosplay restaurant where all the workers are vN and the customers are human. As a waitress, Amy has to wear different outfits (eg. nurse, cowgirl) and is essentially part of the restaurant's entertainment, play-acting a role for humans. I think this is meant to show how, despite their sentience, vN have difficulty finding a place in a human society where many people want to see them as merely robots and machines, placing them in an uncomfortable position between person and object.

Also explored is the relationship between parent and child. At its core, vN is really about family, growing up and belonging, and Ashby draws parallels between the parent-child relationship with the vN ability to self-replicate. A number of vN characters are compared to their "mothers" or "fathers", the vN that they are replicated from, questioning if children can transcend their hereditary influences. Amy's father Jack also serves as an example of how parents can sometimes decide things for their children, in order to ensure a good life for their child, but in reality, this decision can be damaging. By restricting Amy's food so she can grow up at the same rate as a human child, Jack hopes that it will help her intergrate better into human society, but it also hints of child abuse, since while Amy feels no pain at the lack of nourishment, she does mention feeling a constant hunger and emptiness. It is also this hunger that drives her to eat her grandma.

In terms of the plotline, vN is a fairly typical on-the-run/road trip story. The writing is somewhat disjointed, most noticeably in the first half of the book and during action scenes. There are not enough explanations or descriptions for the background and setting so the book is difficult to get into. I would have liked more information on how the world in vN came to be the way it is. A lot of scientific- and technical-sounding terminology is used without only vague allusions to their real meaning and never get fully explained until well into the story. In the second half of the book, the writing flowed more smoothly and the narrative turns toward uncovering Portia's and Charlotte's past, and the book takes on a more typical hero-looking-for-answers storyline. It was enjoyable to follow Amy through her journey as she discovers her own special qualities as a vN and learns the truth about the antagonistic relationship between her mother and grandmother. However, the plot becomes predictable at this point and while vN offers plenty of food for thought, it stays within conventional tropes and plotlines rather than going into more subversive territory. It doesn't challenge the idea of what a robot story is.

Still, there is plenty to like about this book and science fiction fans should definitely check it out. vN is full of fresh and interesting ideas and the steady pace of the plot as well as the many likeable characters will keep readers' attentions. The writing could use some polishing up, but I like that Ashby is well versed in contemporary pop culture, seamlessly weaving references to science fiction, anime and online culture into the narrative. It seems that a sequel will be coming out as well, and I know I will definitely be looking out for that.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  serru | Oct 6, 2022 |
What happens when Robots evolve ?

A fresh and very original take on self aware androids, with hints of Dick's Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep and Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. A deep, dark yet rich and optimistic jaunt into the future of AI as evolution. ( )
  Aetherson | Apr 26, 2021 |
Robots who eat robot food* and raise their robot offspring with human spouses. Don't worry, they have a failsafe so they will ALWAYS help humans and nothing will ever go wrong nosirree. Don't you tell them their feelings aren't real.

I am still only about 1/3 of the way through, and I realized that I am only reading it on my phone because I don't want to be done.

* For a loose definition of "food"...

UPDATE: Finished finally despite best efforts. Fortunately I think there's a follow-up. Seriously one of the most inventive stories I've read in a long time. ( )
  tatere | Dec 30, 2020 |
First I want to say that I hate the cover of this book. It's terrible and I wish it was better because the book is better.

I really enjoyed the universe in this book. Robots are awesome in general, and I especially like reading about AI interacting with humans. The whole deal with the failsafe and free will was really fascinating. This is one of those books where I might forget what happened in the story but I'll be thinking about the universe it happened in for a long time. What does it mean to be fond of something if your fondness is built-in? What does it mean to be "built-in" if you're a robot anyway? Isn't everything built-in? If you can believe that robot feelings are real and true, then how come the failsafe feelings aren't? Are Amy and Charlotte and Portia more real? Does more real have to mean more human? Are Javier's failsafe fondness and Amy's non-failsafe fondness different in any meaningful way anyway? Amy doesn't want to hurt humans any more than Javier does, but she's capable of it. Maybe it means more if you choose not to do it because you want not to do it, and not because you'll die if you do. Anyway, I'm thinking of more stuff, but I don't want to make this review too long. ( )
  katebrarian | Jul 28, 2020 |
I'm gonna have a hard time reviewing this one not because the book was hard or particularly idea-dense, but because my expectations mismatched the resulting tale.

Don't get me wrong, it's still about self-replicating machines and it eventually gets to the meat of good ideas explored relatively well, but for the longest time, I just had the impression that I was reading a YA novel. Not even a very good YA novel. Family issues, growing up too fast, being on the run, hanging out with that flawed boy. It took too much time. I wanted worldbuilding.

Of course, that's my issue, not anyone else's. I suppose I just wanted something spectacular based on that cover. *sigh*

The ideas have potential. A potential herd of babies? Sure. Potential. Subverting "protective" programming to find your own destiny outside of what the humans want? Potential.

Unfortunately, most of what I read skirted the edge of noise. Human drama, mediocre situations for large parts of the novel, and missed opportunities. I'm not saying it's a bad novel, just an average one. Nothing grabbed me. Which is a shame... because I liked the author's Company Town novel.

I'll continue because I already bought the second novel, but I probably wouldn't have, otherwise.

Win some, lose some. ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Madeline Ashbyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bland, MartinCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For Caitlin Sweet, who loved Amy first,

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Peter Watts, the Giant Squid who lent me an island when I rebuilt myself
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Jack had lived through this same moment before, with human women.
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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 them, 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"--Publisher's description.

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