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on August 24, 2012
But really, all pop culture references aside (and there are numerous), the book was middle of the road for me. For all the potential this story had, I found myself really struggling with the pacing, lack of exposition, and the ending. I hate to give the book two stars because there were some great ideas presented, and I certainly think Amy is an endearing protagonist who is worthy of reader affection, but after about halfway through the novel I found myself skimming pages in an almost desperate attempt to finish the book without spending any more time on it than I had to (which I did). The events that transpire around the book's middle and thereafter really fumbled me up, and the only reason I opted to finish the book was because of the time I'd already invested in the first half. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers

We are introduced to Amy (a synthetic humanoid android) in the prologue through the viewpoint of her human father. The time we spend here is actually quite precious and does its job of bringing the reader into a world that certainly has an authentic feel. Chaos ensues during Amy's kindergarten grad ceremony when her glitched-out grandmother shows up and demonstrates a failsafe malfunction that allows her to kill a human child, one of Amy's classmates. Amy flies into action an eats her grandmother, somehow absorbing her software.

We then switch to Amy for most of the remainder of the book. Amy comes under arrest after the events of her grad ceremony cause something of a mass-market recall for her model. On her way to "prison" she is boosted by another vN, Javair, and begins living as a fugitive with the primary goal of reuniting with her parents, while the whole time learning about her mother and grandmother's past. Things proceed interestingly up until about halfway through the book.

At this point, the famous "show don't tell" adage sent me to my knees.

Particularly, I had trouble with the "Amy-clone zombie robot hoard". Anyone who's read to page 180 or so knows what major plot point I'm talking about. I'm tempted to blame modern editorial preferences for this, but the lack of exposition and (in my opinion) motivation/development transparency here fumbled the whole rest of the book for me. This scene was all I could think about until the ending. The only thing I managed to piece together by the books conclusion was that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, or Amy's shared "Portia" model, had somehow all become broken and desperately wanted to consume/cannibalize Amy, Charlotte, and Portia (specifically), to gain the ability to hurt humans...this did not work for me AT ALL. While the book makes the shortcomings of humanity clear and makes a strong case that they deserve to be rebelled against, the way the zombie hoard is so incredibly convenient that I couldn't buy it. It seems as though every single "Portia" was a daughter of Amy's Grandmother, or something to that effect, and were abused and-

-let me stop-

As you can tell by my rant here, I had major issues with the clarity here.

Additionally, the humans involved in the zombie robot scene seemed very contrived, in fact, most humans did. I was extremely disappointed that we never got to see any of the humans like Amy's dad, and the affect they were having politically, or socially, on robot rights, and things of that nature. I felt like the really relevant story contained within this story went untold because either the author or the editors were too busy keeping up the break-neck pacing to create proper atmosphere and world. I tried to allow a willing suspension of disbelief, and it worked until that zombie hoard scene. Then, I just couldn't.

Not only did the second half of the book keep my eyes somewhat glossed over (since I felt so incredibly jipped with the zombie hoard scene in the middle of the book), the ending perpetrated Deus Ex Machina in such a literal sense that I almost gave myself a concussion slamming the book against my head. That being said, it was cool, and it was done in an interesting way that was consistent with the character, but I feel like it was the ending to a completely different story/quest arc, one in which this ending is her goal, and it is worked for. Yes, I understand it puts Amy on a brink of war Mechanical really, REEALLY happens.

Concerning the writing itself, the author does a fine job in the prologue and while she uses Amy as her POV. Shifts throughout the book seemed pointless, and the information given to the reader during those shifts could've been delivered in much cooler, more creative ways (IMO). Particularly, this is a very strange shift during the climax that almost had me tearing out pages to finish. The little information I gleaned from these passages was jumbled, confusing, verging on annoying even. After only a few sentences I couldn't stop bringing my attention back to the "book" and COMPLETELY out of the story.

Sadly, I do not think any addition books in this series will make it onto my reading list. Like I said, there were some great great ideas here, but in my opinion they couldn't salvage the story-telling once I hit the middle of the book.
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on March 28, 2013
I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right. It's enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.

The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator). A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus' Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help. Clearly, the Second Coming didn't happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry. This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I've seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary.

The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional. Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time. No one is presented as pure evil or good.

The plot is similarly complex. There's a lot going on in Amy's world, and none of it is predictable. What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing? Is it a natural progression that it doesn't work in Amy? What about how Amy's mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them? Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning? And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann's? For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them. Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine? The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.

What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting. Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape? Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or "programming"? Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices. Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family?

All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me. First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn't jibe with the story for me. I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren't ones that generally work for me. Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot's boobs don't move. This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not. This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously. I'm sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs. Their boobs would bounce! This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements. It simply wasn't a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.

Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family. Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you're an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.
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VINE VOICEon May 7, 2014
A pedophile preacher successfully develops a race of sentient humanoid robots, ostensibly built in order to aid and comfort the wicked people left behind after the coming Rapture. What could possibly go wrong?

Robots in Madeline Ashby's near-future world are called "vN" after John von Neumann, the Jewish-Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, and all-around genius who, among other things, laid the groundwork for virtually all computers in use today (they're called "von Neumann machines" for a reason) and also developed a theory of self-replicating machines, which, by the way, the vN are. Self-replicating, that is. Given enough "food" -- plastic, iron, and other minerals -- they not only grow like organic beings, they also reproduce through a form of asexual budding. It's a cool idea, though Ashby never explains how or whether the vN's self-replication mechanism is based on von Neumann's theory.

Once the vN technology goes to market, vNs appear everywhere in roles such as laborer, servitor, and, inevitably, prostitute. But vNs are smart, self-aware, learning machines with the capacity to detect, understand, and even feel -- or at least simulate -- human emotion. They become girlfriends and boyfriends and husbands and wives of humans, and, when vNs "iterate" (reproduce), their "children" become family members. The children can even look like human children as long as they're kept on a near-starvation diet. One of those children is Amy, a kindergartner whose vN mother and human father struggle to give a normal, suburban, middle-class, human upbringing.

This does not turn out as well as hoped. Something does go very wrong when an out-of-control robot kills a human child. All vN are equipped with a "failsafe" that prevents them from harming humans and, consistent with Asimov's famous three laws (I, Robot), requires them to protect humans from harm. When this killer robot turns out to be Amy's grandmother, and when humans begin to suspect that Amy and her mother may share grandma's flaw, things do not look good for Amy.

But, as Ashby continually reminds us -- without directly saying so -- what's really wrong is not that there's a robot -- or even a few robots -- out there who can defy humans, it's rather that humans are so *inhumane* in their views and their treatment of these sentient beings that live and work among them. Some reviewers have suggested that Asby uses vN as a stand-in for racial/ethnic minorities or other marginalized groups. I don't think that's the case; the kind of exploitation and maltreatment that concerns Ashby is universal.

So ... This is not a book for kids; there's too much ugly violence, especially (implied) sexual violence. It's not laugh-out-loud funny. It's not really a thriller, although there are some chases, escapes, and close encounters with death. Perhaps it's a mystery, but the mystery is mostly whether or not humans can love robots, robots can love humans, robots can love robots, or anybody can love themselves (in a non-narcissistic way), whether sex is (only) about selfish pleasure, and whether we can have non-exploitative relationships with others, especially those who are not quite like us.

Others have complained about deficiencies in the novel -- which is, after all, a first novel. There are some puzzling moments, and when you step back you have to ask "But why did it happen this way?" or "Why didn't that happen?" It's also a bit annoying that Ashby makes so many references that will be obscure to many readers; e.g., if you haven't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? you're going to be clueless about why the vN restaurant chain is called "Electric Sheep," and if you haven't seen Blade Runner, you're not going to know why it features a drink called "Tears in Rain." I think these are minor problems, and while they bugged me a little during my read, I found reading vN well worth the time and effort. Recommended.
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on June 17, 2014
I'm baffled by the positive reviews of this book. The writing is painfully bad. It reads like the work of a thirteen-year-old trying to be profound and edgy. In a typical turn of phrase from this book we read, during a fight scene, "Her teeth sang." Ah. Well. "Sing", did they? It is page after page of this kind of crap.

The science fiction in the book is so moronic it strains one's suspension of disbelief far past the breaking point. If it were a Douglas Adams story the absurdity would be the point. But this story isn't trying to be funny. You're supposed to take it seriously. It's much worse than the "human battery" plot point in the Matrix, for comparison.

The characters are so poorly developed, it's often struggle to figure out what the author is getting at. An odd phrase leaves you thinking "What? Oh! Right! There was one sentence three chapters ago briefly mentioning this character trait."

I tried twice to finish it, but am throwing in the towel at this point. I've read books that are intentionally or unintentionally so bad they're good. This book is not like that. It's just bad.
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on July 19, 2014
In the first chapter, a five-year-old child robot eats her estranged grandmother, python-style, and goes from kindergartner to adult in an instant from the additional biomass.

Good opening, and there are some interesting WTF circumstances (like robots were created to fill out the Earth after the rapture) but the rest stagnates. Once again, it's a book where the robots don't act like robots. They act like people. The only difference is they know they were artificially created. But other than that, they eat, they fall in love, they procreate. You can't tell the difference. The interesting things are just background -- they don't come into play with the plot and don't even make plausible sense in the scheme of the world.

The story is about programming as parenting. The problem is it felt more like a summer blockbuster action piece with chase sequences and romances that don't blossom until the end, and for me, those just don't work in a book format. It was a sludge to get through. It's a promising idea, and it does use some tropes like the existence of smart "gray goo" and robots in/as families in new ways. I can see this appealing to those few who liked A.I. and Brazil.
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on August 13, 2012
With all the gore and violence, I did not expect this to be a young adult novel targeted at younger kids, but as I try to read through this I am confronted with the blatant truth: this is a teens' novel. At the heart of this story is the struggle of a girl fighting an evil alternate personality. Sure you can wrap it up with some techno babble but it makes no real difference. Yes there are some family things as well. Mostly Amy's desire to reunite with her family in a very naive manner. I don't get a sense of growth in her character after all she's gone through.

There are two things that annoyed me most from what I have read (before giving up):

1. Everyone speaks exactly in the same style, except Javier, who throws in some Spanish every few pages. The number of "dudes" "awesome" "sh*t" is beyond count. Amy speaks the same as a kindergartner and as an escapee on the run. And so does every other character. I feel like I'm reading a bunch of teenagers' recount of the story.

2. No one acts in the least bit robot-ly. With the occasional mention of operating system, subroutine, and other techno-jargon, each vN acts on feeling, intuition, and other entirely human traits. For instance, when Javier tells Amy she can actually jump because the code is in her, why can't she probe her database of plugins or whatever and actually find it? Instead she must "feel with her gut" or something and do it. Sure one can argue that this was the way they are programmed, but to me it just reads like a thin facsimile of robotry over what would otherwise be human characters. (Sorry, I just took a course on Advanced OS, so this con is perhaps biased)

I think what bugged me the most was the inconsistency in writing. The first few chapters were well done and filled with very plausible scifi explanations for futuristic inventions. But when the plot starts rolling, the explanations go sideways. I get the sense the author watches a lot of anime and reads a lot of manga (which is awesome!), but perhaps she either does not read enough (of the good stuff) or else she reads too much. I say this because animesque events just happens as if they would be cool to write about without regard to the sense of the story (perhaps this is the "creative" aspect of the book, but to a regular of anime and manga, it just feels normal). Perhaps this is a new style, but I found it really hard to take it seriously and take it lightly at the same time.

For a young adult novel, it's really not that bad. I like it better than Hunger Games. There is way less monotony and inane fixation on food or fashion and I think a teen could relate to the main character. However, someone should really point out that this is in fact a young adult novel targeted at teens (or parents with teens) and that it is more syfy than scifi.
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on May 22, 2014
A few things to know about Ms. Ashby - she's a flippin' genius, a marvelous storyteller and she's willing to pursue her ideas and stories without reference to niceties. While I think it would be fair to say she's a liberal feminist, she's way not PC. She takes it all head-on, sensibilities be hanged. She reminds me of a liberal Ayn Rand with a few important differences besides ideology - she knows how to edit, if she explores the same or similar themes, she does so in interesting and new ways; Ms. Rand tended to rehash with slight variations. Also, her are subservient to the story, not the other way around. vN explores themes tied to sentient androids and their relations to humans other vN (she invokes something similar to Asimov's 3 laws of robotics), unique issues tied to self-replicating androids (hence the Von Neumann machine reference) and a world in which cataclysmic events have destabilized our world (does she have a thing against Seattle?). "An iteration is not a copy, it is simply the next version." Ashby, Madeline (2012-07-31). vN (First Machine Dynasty) (Kindle Location 3651). Osprey Publishing. Kindle Edition.

For full review:
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon July 31, 2012
Jack's wife Charlotte and daughter Amy are von Neumann-type humanoids. The vN were created by religious folk who thought it would be nice for the unsaved to have some helpers after being left behind. That's an original premise, albeit an unlikely one -- are believers in the rapture likely to devote resources to making the lives of "left behind" sinners more comfortable? Will the saved really provide the unsaved with humanoid sex partners as compensation for missing out on salvation? If you can suspend your disbelief of that premise, the offbeat story that follows is full of entertaining surprises.

A less original premise (thanks to Isaac Asimov) is that a vN can never harm a human; a failsafe causes the vN to suffer if it sees a human in pain. That premise is tested by Amy's grandmother (Portia) and other members of her clade, who seem perfectly content to cause havoc in the human population.

Amy engages in an act of humanoid cannibalism, busts out of jail, and watches a male vN give birth to a baby -- all in the first couple of chapters. Amy also contends with bounty hunters and rapidly emerging breasts while trying to ignore Portia's ever-present nagging voice, which she has internalized for reasons that are (like many of the novel's events) bizarre. The most significant addition to the cast is a vN named Javier who has a history of giving birth to children before abandoning them.

At times vN has the flavor of a comic book, complete with a super-powered heroine. There's also an element of silliness -- maybe you could call it playfulness -- that pervades the story. To some extent the story is a family drama, albeit one in which most members of the featured families (Amy's and Javier's) are mechanical. To some extent the novel is a love story. It is in part an action/adventure story, in part a comedy, in a part a science fiction story that is light on the science. For all its strangeness -- including an ending that, like the rest of the story, I would never have predicted -- there is a poignancy that breaks through in the final chapters and comes to dominate everything else. I was uncertain how I felt about vN in the novel's first half, but it grew on me as the story progressed and as I came to appreciate the characters.

vN follows memes that are commonplace in science fiction: whether intelligent sentience entitles a humanoid to human rights; whether freedom is simply the ability to say no. It expands the last question in an interesting way by asking whether freedom for an AI is the ability to harm a human. On the other hand, perhaps true freedom (for human and humanoid alike) is the ability to experience joy -- or love.

vN also touches on serious issues not frequently addressed in science fiction, including pedophilia and the perils of democracy (at least when tyrannical decisions are made democratically by vN). Still, this isn't a story that a reader is encouraged to take too seriously. It is enjoyable, lively, and sweet, with just enough profundity to make the story worth thinking about after the fun ends
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on May 4, 2014
While androids who live among humans, have something akin to asimov's laws of robotics , of even as substitutes for sinful pursuits are not new this particular world by Madeline Ashby is unique. Some of these self-sacrifice characterization is reminiscent of the hope series by David feintuch, albeit with less self loathing. The action scenes and plot could use a little more help. The ending feels like a deus ex machina.
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on December 12, 2014
This debut novel by Madeline Ashby asks some interesting questions about what the motivations and desires of humanoid AIs would be, and the surprising answer is remarkably similar to what their human creators seek. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of robo-happiness looks much the same as the familiar goals, with some cosmetic differences in the health & diet departments. Ashby’s von Neumann robots are lot like the vampires making the rounds in a lot of YA fiction these days: Super-powered, beautiful versions of people who happen to eat something unusual, but share all our emotions and dramas. Here, I was a bit disappointed, and saw potential for some wildly interesting outlook that superimposes inarguable machine logic on top of everyday life. The closest thing here was the universally in-built “failsafe” directive that the vN possess which compels them to obey and cherish humans, (their garlic/sunlight/stake/holy water Achilles’ heel). The central conflict of the story arrises from, naturally, the appearance of a vN who can willfully ignore her failsafe. Like many of those YA ‘paranormal romance’ stories, there is a blossoming romance in the works, and an authoritarian regime eager to snuff it all out. The first person perspective brought to mind Charles Stross’ “Saturn’s Children”, which also featured a female humanoid robot protagonist, and a parallel mechanism to the failsafe whereby robots are compelled to obey all humans completely and lovingly.
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