vN: a science fiction novel about robots, perverts, power and privilege

By Cory Doctorow

vN, Madeline Ashby's debut novel, drops today. I'm an immense fan of Ashby's work (I actually published her first story) and vN did not disappoint. The novel is set in a medium-term future where a race of self-replicating robots ("von Neumanns" or vNs for short) have been engineered to act as servile helpmeets by an apocalyptic Christian cult that wanted to leave behind a kind of relief mission for the unbelievers and heretics who'd be left behind by the Rapture. The vNs are engineered with a "failsafe" so that they cannot harm humans or allow humans to be harmed (sound familiar?). Even being in the same room as a human who has cut himself can send them into catatonia, and sometimes it's permanent.

The failsafe turns vNs into pathetic servants, sex-slaves, and whipping-posts. A nascent robots' rights movement has legitimized marriage between humans and robots, but these relationships are fraught by their vast power-divide. Meanwhile, all robots must watch their diets -- once they eat enough, they automatically bud off copies of themselves. Vast, vagrant hordes of vNs from uncatalogued clades and variants roam the landscape, scouring dumpsters and junkyards for electronics to consume. The copies that emerge aren't perfect -- rather, these "iterations" are randomly varied next-generations, and evolution is fast emerging every imaginable kind of robot.

Amy, the protagonist of the story, is the "daughter" of a robot and a human. Iterated from her robot mother, she is kept on a near-starvation diet to prevent her from growing up too quickly, and is sent to a human kindergarten where she must be treated with kid gloves -- one schoolyard fight or scuffed knee and she could end up bluescreened, catatonic at the sight of a human in distress. Very early in the story, Amy is cast out on her own, in pursuit of the dark secret of her maternal grandmother, the vN that iterated her mother, a freak of nature who has the power to harm humans, a power Amy may have inherited herself.

Ashby's debut is a fantastic adventure story that carries a sly philosophical payload about power and privilege, gender and race. It is often profound, and it is never boring.

vN: The First Machine Dynasty

Published 6:00 am Tue, Jul 31, 2012

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

28 Responses to “vN: a science fiction novel about robots, perverts, power and privilege”

  1. bumblebeeeeeee says:

    why do these books always have such poorly designed covers? really puts me off checking them out.

    It undermines the content. If they care so little about the cover and doing a decent job of that with the right talent, what impression does it give of the content?

    • GlyphGryph says:

      Gotta agree with this, that cover is an enormous turn off. I might give it a try because of the review, and I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that makes it look really, really bad.

    • NickEightyOne says:

      That’s easy: the cover isn’t there to attract people like you who read books based on the review on BoingBoing, it’s there to attract people who read books based on the cover.

      They won’t lose many discerning readers with a bad cover, but they may pick up a few “ohh, this looks like robot porn” sales.

  2. CSBD says:

    I agree about the cover… they need better artists. The art is just terrible. It looks like a little kids collage or something. Nothing fits and none of the elements look like they were sitting next to each other, they just look photoshopped in.

    This book does however look to have an interesting premise.  I think ill add it to the que.

  3. brint says:

    What appears to be a short version of this story was in the most recent Flurb (which I learned about from boingboing) under the name “Give Granny a Kiss”

  4. Phil Fot says:

    Thanks, Cory. I’m a fan of sentient machine fiction.

    (edit: Man, I love amazon’s one-click!)

    • I hate it, at least for Kindle books, because it doesn’t seem to give you the option of using Amazon points from your Amazon card :(

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        I stopped using One-Click for that reason. Their check-out process still doesn’t work very well after all these years.

        • You can turn if off… but it turns itself on for Kindle purchases anyway.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            I’ve stopped using One-Click because I always want to use Amex points.  But lately, even when I do snail check-out, I don’t get an option to use points, and I have to start from the beginning.  Which always means signing in again.  Amazon loves those multiple sign-ins.

      • Phil Fot says:

         If you have an amazon card it matters. I don’t. I prefer a debit card. I don’t like spending money that isn’t in my pocket, as it were.

  5. Vinnie Tesla says:

    I disagree; I thought it was a striking and creepy cover.

  6. dangerous_mouse says:

    The publisher, Angry Robot, sells DRM free ePub ebooks without geographical restrictions at, this book included.

    For those that hate the cover, here’s an interview with the artist Also covers are a matter of taste. But… Some Angry Robot books have undeniably awesome cover art. Such as this and this

  7. Just bought the DRM-free edition directly from the publisher, and loaded it up on Readmill, which has become my favourite ereader on the iPad. Looking forward to reading it!

  8. chellberty says:

    “apocalyptic Christian cult that wanted to leave behind a kind of relief mission for the unbelievers and heretics who’d be left behind by the Rapture.” 
    Gah that ruins the one good thing about the rapture that the christian fundamentalists would be gone. 

  9. redhead says:

    except for one scene that squicked me out (and I think that was the point), vN was simply superb.

  10. glittalogik says:

    Not currently available from the Kindle Store for some reason, I’ll be grabbing a copy as soon as it is.

  11. Aaron Burke says:

    Is it just me, or are the Amazon links 404s?

  12. Phil Fot says:

    My copy arrived yesterday.

    Asshat mailman left it on the front steps… in a pouring rain. Didn’t even ring the bell. When I picked up the box, it literally fell apart into brown slop.

    That is the absolute first time I’ve ever been thankful Amazon having prepackaged the book on cardboard with a heavy heat sealed plastic covering.

    The book was pristine. I’m waiting on the slop to dry before I try to clean it off the steps.

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