vN is a debut novel by Madeline Ashby that is part sci-fi adventure and part an exploration of morality. It tells the story of Amy, a von Neumann machine. These are artificially intelligent robots capable of consuming resources to heal, grow and replicate themselves. Amy is a little girl, growing up with her vN mother and human father. Her parents want her to grow up like a normal child, so they restrict her diet to make her grow at a human rate. Then, when she’s five years old, everything changes. At her kindergarten graduation, her mother’s mother, Portia, appears. Portia kills a little boy and tries to hurt Amy’s mother. Amy steps in to protect her mother and attacks with the only weapon she has – her teeth. She eats her grandmother and grows to adulthood in a day.
The thing is, that shouldn’t have been possible. All vNs have a failsafe that makes them automatically love humans and makes them feel ill if they see a human being hurt. The failsafe failed in Portia and apparently in Amy too. Now she’s on the run from people who are scared of what a vN without a failsafe might do. She meets Javier, an arboreal vN who’s been arrested for creating too many iterations of himself. Together, they try to run, but it seems the failsafe isn’t the only thing that’s wrong with Amy.
The book goes to some dark places at times, touching on some very serious issues. As an example, there’s a paedophile who has two vN children, completely confident that it’s fine to abuse them because it means he’s not hurting real children. While the book can be read as a light adventure, these issues allow for it to become something deeper.
The only thing I thought let the book down was the ending. After a very strong and gripping plot, it felt like the ending just came out of nowhere. It needed several pages to explain how it was that the event just happened to occur at exactly the right time. It felt like a deus ex machina. That was disappointing because the book was otherwise extremely strong and the ending didn’t quite live up to the quality of the rest of it.
Still, I would look out for other books by this author because it was otherwise very well-written, an interesting story with some compelling characters.