Saturday, 27 August 2016

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Image result for vN ashby

We are very close to letting computers/robots take over decision-making choices for us in very real ways, particularly when you think about self-driving cars. We know there will have to be an algorithm for how to avoid crashes, and if you can't, how to decide what happens. It's curious how little people are talking about Asimov's Three Rules for Robots, even as we see scare articles about cars being programmed to preferentially save the rich.

That being said, vN is the first book I've come along in a while that has taken a look at rules for robots, and she takes them into damned troubling places that push far beyond whatever Asimov ever imagined. Since sexual violence has been a theme recently, I should warn people thinking about this book that by the end, you'll discover that most of the robots have been sexually assaulted (we'll talk more about that in a minute), and there are lots of references to robots being used by pedophiles. We're in squicky territory, people.

You want to take that on, you'd better have a hell of a book to back it up. Is this that book? Well, it's not bad. It is, though, mostly an adventure story, where the theme about robot free will and programming is laid in subtly. It's not bad, but it did mean that much of the attention was on the action. That's not a terrible way to go, but if you have ideas that big and troubling, it sort of feels like leading your audience to them is a good start, but that it might need a little more. Perhaps she goes there in later books.

This one book did not grab me enough to put her on my list of authors I'll go out of my way to read. Wasn't bad, just didn't make me want to read everything else she's written. not yet, anyway. I certainly wouldn't avoid one if it popped up on one of my lists. It's just that the list of "My Authors" is getting damned long and an author has to be pretty impressive/tickle me just right to get on there.

So let's look at how she riffs upon Asimov's rules to take them to her own very dark place. And what she has to say about their autonomy as well.

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

In vN, robots are built with a failsafe that causes something like a fatal anaphylactic reaction, not only if they harm humans, but if they witness harm to humans in any way, probably including too vivid imagining of it happening. This tends to mean that when someone's hurt, even minorly, the robots have to turn their heads and look away and not get involved, so we've got the first part, but not necessarily the second.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Well, this is still sort of the case, but it really only comes into play when it comes to sex. I mean, some of the robots are built for specific purposes, like being a nurse (the main character, Amy, is descended from this model, and hence the chain of events that left her without a failsafe), or a forester. But mostly humans tend to use them for sex, even though they are technically autonomous and self-owned beings. 

The failsafe also makes the robots want to do whatever humans tell them, so they don't really get a choice about the sex, and enjoy it because their programming tells them to. I said it was squicky. It makes it impossible for robots not to consent, and makes all the sexual encounters that seem consensual a great deal more troubling. 

We don't really get into other kinds of orders - the robots generally seem okay with disobeying other things, so the troubling is really focused less on forced labour and more on forced sex. Although this is certainly the case in the book, and it's disturbing as hell, is it really given enough space? Beyond one robot with a failsafe deciding he wants to be with Amy, and away from humans who end up making him respond sexually, not really?

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This does not really seem to be part of Ashby's revised rules. The robots do sacrifice themselves, quite willingly, and not only to protect humans. In fact, the failsafe means that they really can't die to protect humans - they'd die long before they could do anything useful.

They do, however, procreate like crazy, which is triggered automatically by eating enough - and they're ravenously hungry all the time unless they're eating enough to trigger a procreation cycle. One would think that this would lead to issues with robot overpopulation, but we really don't get into it. 

We do get a lot into parenting, both good and bad, human and robot, and the ideas of passing down programming to the next generation, whether literally or metaphorically. Amy is a robot child when her grandmother attacks her parents, and in response, she eats her grandmother, who then sets up space in Amy's brain. (In addition to no failsafe, Amy is also special in that she can literally absorb programming from other robots through ingestion.) Her grandmother is quite mad, and uses her own lack of a failsafe to kill and maim, both humans and her own children when they don't live up to what she wants. 

We get an answer for what led to Amy's lack of failsafe, but not so much to the eating the brains of your enemies to gain their powers. I joke - it doesn't have to be the brain.)

At any rate, this is a tense story of Amy on the run, in a world that is rife with robots being sexually abused. It considers these issues some, but I would have liked more. Nothing wrong with letting your readers draw their own conclusions, but when you're playing in waters that muddy, it feels like it needs to be more than set dressing. Otherwise, we just get a lot of very uncomfortable sexual coercion and references to pedophilia. Maybe that's the point, to raise how disturbing this could be, if our society went that way. But I wanted something more that I wasn't getting. 

In other words, it's not bad, although people should definitely have the knowledge of the subject matter to decide whether or not it's where they want to spend their leisure time before diving in.  


  1. That is such a coincidence that you just read this because I just finished Company Town by Ashby too, and it was also my first book by her. Interestingly in that book there aren't a lot of robots per se - tech yes, and tons of it nanotechnology scale - but part of the story involves the murders of women involved in the sex trade. The main character is not a trade worker, but works as protection for the women when they are out on call. The book itself is partly dedicated to the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada (another awful story).

    I got the sense that Ashby is a person of some intelligence and there seemed to be a breadth of understanding there. I don't know if that came across in this book too? It seems as if she does have some strong feelings about women and sex and power, as you say, and it would be interesting to read both books and see how the way those ideas manifest in each compare.

    1. Huh, that is interesting! And yes, I'm certainly not saying that she handled it particularly badly, but more that if she was going to raise these troubling ideas (which are perfectly good ones to raise), I wanted a little less action, a little more engagement.

      And it would be interesting to compare!