Cracking the Failsafe: iD by Madeline Ashby

Welcome to a world populated by the artificial life-forms known as vN, short for von Neumanns. Self-replicating robots originally designed as part of a religious program, the vN are company for the people who would inevitably be left behind by the Rapture. Things didn’t go as planned, and now the vN are everywhere, while the Rapture is still just a vague hope. Coded with fail-safes designed to shut them down if they ever harm humans or allow them to come to harm, the vN are everything from babysitters to bodyguards to sex therapists…as well as slaves of all sorts.

Amy is a vN who managed to break away from the fail-safe. Javier is the vN who loves her. After a series of adventures, they’ve ended up on an artificial island which Amy controls absolutely, offering a sort of home and refuge to others of their kind. Their relationship is fragile, fraught with complications and hazards, and unexpectedly happy. Of course the outside world can’t let the threat of independent robots stand. When visitors turn into invaders, and their island dream becomes a nightmare, Amy is apparently killed and Javier is forced to go on the run. But with Amy dead, the artificial intelligence known as Portia is on the loose, and wreaking technological vengeance upon the world she despises. Only Javier can stand in her way…but what can he do?

Somewhere, a backup of Amy still exists. Javier will do anything to find it, to resurrect his love, for only Amy knows how to defeat Portia. To accomplish his mission, Javier will change his identity, steal and lie, blackmail and seduce whoever it takes. He’ll cross the world and make deals with the worst sort of people. And when he finds himself caught between an all-powerful AI hell-bent on destruction, and a human plot to wipe out the vN, he’ll be pushed to the limits.

iD is the second book in Ashby’s provocative series about the vN, and it’s a strange, complex, multi-layered read. It’s an intriguing look at the concept of the post-human consciousness; in the vN, we’ve built our children and our successors, and in these books, they’ve started taking their first truly independent and rebellious steps away from us. And that, of course, doesn’t sit well with any number of people who stand to benefit by keeping them in their place.

So what’s this book about?

It’s about love, and family. Amy and Javier have found each other. And even though their relationship’s not perfect, they try to make it work. They have children, because vN can’t help but “iterate,” essentially spawning off miniature versions of themselves that grow or not depending on how much and well they’re fed. The apparent loss of Javier’s children during the attack on the island indeed fuels much of his rage and despair later on. The creation and rebuilding of the family units plays a big role along the way.

It’s about slavery. The vN are slaves to their programming, constrained by the fail-safe that can kill them even if they just think about harming humans. They’re designed for certain functions and roles, and most of them never break free of that lifetime of conditioning. They never get to aspire to anything greater than being a gardener, or a nurse, or a security guard…or a sex object. In fact, there are some genuinely creepy passages where we see that some vN are treated like Thai child prostitutes; it’s even easier to mistreat them because they’re only robots, after all. Javier himself is built for sex, with a long history of doing it both willingly and unwillingly, to help people and to make a living. But even though he’s good at it and enjoys being with people, he’s still bound by his programming, by his fail-safe.

It’s telling that one of the very first things we see about Javier is this: “They knew he could fuck. They knew he couldn’t say no.”

That’s one of the major themes of the book: vN must live by the fail-safe, and yet they’re on the verge of breaking free. Javier risks his life to save a human, because inaction would lead to his own death, not because he’s a good person. Free will is not exactly an option for the vN, and it leads to some pretty dark scenarios.

The world that Ashby envisions is fascinating, filled with strange ideas, nifty technology, and some rather mature implications. Asimov might have given his robots the Rules, but Ashby doesn’t shrink back from exploring a world where disposable, artificial, life-forms who must obey or die, have become relatively commonplace. Where they can be enslaved or killed at a whim, where they can be used or abused at leisure and convenience, where genocide is considered an acceptable solution to disobedience and rebellion.

iD is not always a happy, easy, or comforting read, but it’s certainly an intriguing one, and a refreshingly thoughtful exploration of the themes. The storyline does drag and meander in places; Javier’s quest to bring back Amy and save the world seems to involve a fair number of digressions as he careens from one goal to the next, taking some strange turns along the way. But if you’re a fan of Charles Stross, you might enjoy this book, as it has that same sort of expectation-challenging, boundary-pushing feel. I’ll be interested to see where Ashby goes with the series after this, if she continues it.

iD is available June 25th from Angry Robot.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.


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