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.