So here we have vN, a book that may feel a little dated by now since it has been over 4 years since its initial release but I'm glad that I finally read it. And it's quite the interesting title indeed, one that explores a lot of ideas related to identify, sentience and purpose.
A lot of the book reminds me of older "hard sci-fi" as many have come to term it. It's a book with big ideas and challenging concepts but also a direct narrative and a little girl trying to find her way. The fact that this little girl is actually an artificial intelligence and stops being little a few chapters into the book is but a side detail versus the longer narrative at work.
Synopsis: vN is a science fiction novel written by Madeline Ashby and is the first book in her series The Machine Dynasty. I initially received a free copy of this book for review purposes through the Angry Robot Army but eventually bought a copy even before reading the review book.
In this near future world, self-replicating, intelligent robots known as von Neumann machines are a regular part of life. They were the weird result of a religious group's preparations for the Rapture and now they're everywhere. But they aren't out to take over the world since each is programmed with the Fail Safe that prevents them from even just witnessing a human coming into bodily harm.
Amy Peterson is a young robot who is fed very little in order to keep her growth at the same pace of a normal child as part of a happy little family. Her father is human while her mother is another android of the same Clade or model and they get along well enough. But things change drastically when her grandmother re-enters their life in a most violent way and Amy ends up consuming her completely in order to protect her mother. Now her grandmother's personality has been absorbed into her own thoughts and she has also discovered that the Fail Safe does not seem to work for her.
What I Liked: Like a lot of hard science fiction books out there, the novel tackles a lot of complex ideas starting with these pretty much sentient robots and all the usual questions of self, identity and other good stuff. As much as we have a character on the run for her life, we often have her examining her own thoughts and trying to understand her place in the world. And some characters that she meets along the way, particularly Javier, have similar problems as fellow machines trying to figure out if they deserve lives apart from the humans they were programmed to respect and need to support.
It takes a while to get all the ideas on the table so one can truly understand what's going on and how things generally work. But once you get all those ideas covered, things can be pretty fulfilling as we get through the rest of the story. The ending was a little unexpected but I think the outcome still makes sense and nicely sets the stage for the future.
What Could Have Been Better: Pacing is awkward at times and there are a lot of starts and stops in the feeling of progressing through the plot depending on where you are in the book. We have blissful moments when Amy and Javier are clear of all human interference and then you have faster, more stressful periods when they're being pursued or have once again been captured. And that adds to some of the difficulty of reading the book on top of needing to learn things on your feet about how things work in this version of the near future.
And as much as Amy was raised by a human father and is programmed to emulate humanity, the story being told from her perspective felt very human indeed. Not that I know how the story could have sounded were it more machine-like as it was still written by a person and I can only interpret it as a human being as well. Minor conundrum.
TL;DR: vN is a surprisingly ambitious title with some big ideas about machine life that it tries to tackle. This all largely sets up the stage for things and it's clear there are even bigger ideas that the author wants to tackle in the next few books and I look forward to reading what she has to say. Thus this book still gets a good 3.5 quirks of the different android clades out of a possible 5.