The Most Messed Up Book About Robot Consciousness Ever

Madeline Ashby's new book vN is inevitably going to be compared to Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and its movie adaptation, Blade Runner. There's even a cheeky section where the robot heroine goes to work at a robot-themed restaurant called the Electric Sheep, where a lot of the menu items have names like "Tears in Rain." (It's a cocktail.)

But actually, vN is strange and jarring in a much different way than Dick's paranoid masterpiece. It's a strange, dazzling look at the world through the eyes of a rogue artificial woman, who sees things in an off-kilter fashion, and becomes the most dangerous robot in the world as a result. You get drawn into the lush, disturbing world, seeing it through the eyes of a robot, and soon enough you're losing your whole sense of reality. The familiar human world will never look the same again.

I'm going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, since this book doesn't come out for another couple months. But here's the official synopsis from Angry Robot's website:

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.

That pretty much covers it. The amount of creepiness this book packs into just the first few chapters is really exceptional — first you have the whole business of a little self-replicating robot girl who's being deliberately starved of her synthetic nutrients, so she can remain a little girl and grow at the same rate as organic girls. And then her psychotic "grandmother" attacks, and instead of the little girl being swallowed up by grandma as in countless other weird fairy tales, the reverse happens. Little Amy devours her own grandmother, stretching her jaws to fit the entire adult body inside her and using her acidic robot saliva to pre-digest her.

The best line comes a little later in the book: "Her granny tasted like Moore's Law made flesh."

The robots in this book, like Blade Runner's Replicants or the Skin Jobs from Battlestar Galactica, are weirdly human. They eat "food," although it's not the same as human food, and they can reproduce — they're von Neumann machines, which means that if they eat enough nutrients, they more or less automatically split off a new baby, identical to the original. Every member of a "Clade" is identical. The more you learn about these robots, the more bizarre and somewhat unreal their world comes to seem — mostly in good ways, although some of the strangeness does strain credulity.

Actually, despite the obvious Blade Runner parallels, this book reminded me much more of Amy Thomson's underrated novel Virtual Girl, which also has a robot girl protagonist. Like Thomson, Ashby spends a lot less time exploring the relationships between robots and humans, and a lot more time exploring the relationships among robots and virtual people in general. And the questions of what a robot community would look like — are robots even capable of forming their own separate communities, or do they need humans?

The format of vN is very much that of the adventure novel, in which Amy goes through a series of misadventures on the road, while slowly learning more about herself and about the messed-up world she lives in. She's constantly tormented by her dead grandmother, who survives as a partition in Amy's memory and delivers a running sarcastic commentary on everything that happens. It's one of the most interesting spins on the notion of a protagonist with a split personality I've seen.

In the tradition of shows like BSG, vN also delves into a lot of the questions of identity and selfhood that come up when you have a race of artificial people who can reproduce — but only by creating identical copies of themselves. What does it mean to be an individual in those circumstances? And how do you evolve or grow, beyond the programming and identity that's hardwired into you? It's actually a pretty great coming-of-age novel wrapped inside a robot adventure.

The Most Messed Up Book About Robot Consciousness Ever

And at the heart of vN is the question of the "Fail Safe," the thing that keeps robots from harming humans — which fails in Amy's case, turning her into an incredibly valuable asset or an incredibly dangerous weapon. The exact nature of the "Fail Safe" changes depending on who you're talking to, and also evolves over the course of the novel, as we learn more. At first, it seems as though the Fail Safe causes robots to malfunction — to "blue screen" — if they even see a human harming another human, or an injured human. But later, we come to understand that it's more like a kind of unrequited love — the Fail Safe forces robots to love humans unconditionally, no matter how much humans mistreat them.

Some of the most disturbing, screwy passages in the book come up when we learn more about the relationships between robots and humans. Including some humans who deliberately keep their girl robots little, so they can practice pedophilia without harming a real human. There's this horrible passage, late in the book, when a vN named Javier reflects on the humans who used and discarded him over the years:

He'd been with humans of all shapes and colors through good times and bad. They had a habit of finding him in the troughs and valleys of their lives, when they just wanted something easy, something that just worked, but occasionally he served as a sort of dessert, a reward for their accomplishments. He met them in bars and parking lots and bleachers. They took him to their homes, their capsules, their cars, and even to their churches when they were feeling particularly ambivalent about the whole enterprise. He had been the vengeance fuck, the guilty fuck, the it's not cheating if you're not a person fuck. He had sat with them through Just a tiny little slice and I'll call her back tomorrow and If they didn't want me to dummy up the numbers, they'd have made these forms easier to fill out.

"You love us like God must love us," the last one told him, before the fucking started. The last one was really into God. A lot of gods, actually. He was pursuing a degree in divinity, whatever that meant. He started out all Good Samaritan and ended up leaving little pillars of salt on everything... That time, for the first time, he felt like a machine.

So yeah, if you have been missing the kind of thought-provoking-yet-exciting stories about artificial creatures that only come along once in a while, vN is well worth grabbing. It's disturbing and sometimes upsetting — but the ending is a giant insane weird thrill that makes the whole thing pay off. It's not perfect, by any means — some of the plot twists seem to come out of nowhere, and the world-building left me kind of confused in parts — but as a debut novel, it's a strikingly fresh work of mind-expanding science fiction.