Review: “vN: The First Machine Dynasty,” Madeline Ashby

Pros: Fascinating look at sentient artificial humanoids
Cons: Gets a bit confusing toward the end
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty, self-replicating “von Neumann humanoids” have been created. Ostensibly they were created to serve those humans who would be left behind when the Rapture came, but their creators also had some darker intentions. Jack, a human, is “married” to Charlotte, a vN. Charlotte has iterated–created another of herself–whom they consider their daughter, Amy. They “feed” her very little so she will grow up as slowly as a human, because they want her to be able to integrate into human society. When Amy’s grandmother, Portia, shows up and Charlotte tries to defend Amy, Amy instinctively bites–and devours–Portia. Each vN has a failsafe that makes them break down if they see damage done to a human, the best way their creators came up with to keep them from ever hurting humans. But when Amy saves her mother, she also witnesses a death without being affected by it. She’s taken into custody, but escapes with the help of Javier, another vN. Thence follows a lot of running, and a lot of soul-searching.

First, I’m giving you a trigger warning for child death and for the mention of pedophilia. Not everyone will be comfortable with some of the turns this story takes.

Amy apparently inherited her lack of a failsafe from her mother and grandmother, and the details surrounding how this happened are actually quite fascinating. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who want to put a stop to the existence of a vN with no failsafe, and there are even worse people who have a purpose for such a being. The failsafe also tends to make vN want to do whatever the humans around them want them to do, which can lead to some very dangerous situations for vN. It also raises some beautiful issues of emotion and free will.

Because his designers and engineers and techs had built in autonomy but not freedom, and they had built in free will but not choice….

The characters in here are wonderful. The main characters are vN, and Ashby does a great job of making them not-quite-human. The worldbuilding is also fantastic; the whole history of vN is intriguing. We get to see plenty of Javier and Amy on the run, and how they try to remain free with the help of another vN called Rory. Javier was ready to iterate when Amy met up with him, so they also have “Junior” with them. This translates into a great opportunity to see the differences in how Amy was raised and how other vNs might be raised. The entire setting is lively and well-thought-out.

Toward the end there’s one section that gets really confusing at first, but it does eventually untangle and explain itself. It just gave me a bit of a headache for a short time.

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