Amy Peterson seems like an ordinary little girl, but she’s not. She’s a vN, short for von Neumann machine, a self-replicating robot. Her normal childhood is only possible because she’s eating a restricted diet, preventing her from growing at her normal speed.
Madeline Ashby imagines a world where robots are governed by specific rules. One of those rules, as first laid out by Isaac Asimov, is that a robot cannot harm a human being. For that reason, all vNs come programmed with a failsafe which prevents them from hurting humans and forces them to be subservient and non-threatening. This meant that vNs could become integrated into human society, albeit as second-class citizens.
When Amy’s long-lost grandmother shows up at her kindergarten graduation and attacks her mother, something goes wrong with Amy’s failsafe. She eats her Grandma and flees from the authorities. Since Grandma was not a part of her diet, Amy is forced to grow up fast and to realize what a dangerous world she lives in. Oh, and did I mention that Granny’s still stuck in her head and keeps trying to control her?
Granny was one of my favorite characters in the novel. Yeah, she’s demented and sadistic, but she says things that need to be said about vN rights. Violence isn’t the answer, but her ability to speak her mind was wonderful, even though she did a lot of things that were awful and made me feel queasy just thinking about them. She’s evil in every sense of the word, but you can understand that her reactions are in part based on the extreme injustice found in society. Her need to hurt and kill humans stems from years of exploitation. One of the most powerful moments in the book was when Amy was standing in a trash heap filled with the bodies of malfunctioned vN babies, wondering why they didn’t merit a proper burial. I found myself wanting Granny to take over and go after those responsible, which says something, as I abhor violence. Madeline Ashby makes you feel outraged for everything the vN are forced to endure, which is the mark of a powerful writer.
One of the biggest themes of the book is the idea of autonomy and free will. vNs can think independently and make their own decisions, but only to the extent allowed by their failsafe. Since Amy spent the first six years of her life in a mixed vN/human family, she was raised not to think of herself as any different from her peers. While on the run, she begins to realize what the other vN go through and how they are taken advantage of, often sexually, even as they are physically unable to speak out against the abuse, and forced at the core of their being to like it.
Without question, this is the best piece of singularity fiction that I’ve read. It’s extremely well written, and Ashby is able to describe complex technological and futuristic concepts without alienating readers. (Let’s face it, sometimes singularity fiction does that. It’s awesome, but some of it makes me feel stupid.)
A big thanks to Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer for turning me on to this one. It’s unputdownable.