Madeline Ashby recently published iD, the second book in her Machine Dynasty series. The story follows the adventures of a small cast of vN (sentient, humanoid robots) as they struggle against the wills of their human owners and creators, and ultimately against their own limitations.
Any new book that struggles with issues of artificial life builds on a long foundation of fiction and philosophy. Ashby’s sentient robots, the vN, find themselves cultural products of a civilization (us) that has already spent a great deal of time exploring these issues. Of all the many ways this work resonates with those that have come before it, a few are especially interesting.
Take for example the representation of morality as a tool of oppression. This idea is so pervasive in science fiction (1984, Star Wars, etc.) that it’s practically a sub-genre unto itself. The vN’s creators imposed a moral system on their invention in order to prevent them from violently revolting à la Skynet. This “failsafe” protects humans from the physically and cognitively superior vN, but, invariably, it also creates a deep inequality that makes it very easy for humans to manipulate and abuse the vN in emotional, political, and sexual ways. Ashby grants the vN self-awareness, and an implied expectation of personal and collective rights no different from those of human groups. Even at a personal level, her character’s interactions with the failsafe often read very much like the dialogue of a romantic in love with an abusive partner, a parent with an unappreciative child, or a soldier suffering from memories of violence.
The one exception to this humanizing habit is Portia, a distinctly inhuman, vengeful, and strategic entity. She plays the role of an unruly defense mechanism that has been integrated into Amy, the protagonist we met in vN. The personality and ability dualism recalls a long tradition of fiction, especially Japanese manga and anime, where young (usually female) protagonists contain and struggle to control alter egos whose role is that of aggressor and enforcer, lending great power to otherwise juvenile and physically weak characters. One of the series most reminiscent of the Machine Dynasty is Ayashi no Ceres, wherein the blood of an ancestral superbeing gives the protagonist the ability to transform into Ceres, a vengeful, powerful, and violent entity. Ceres protects the protagonist — but is too powerful to control once invoked, and often leaves a trail of destruction in her wake.
When Amy finally acts to release her fellow protagonist Javier (and eventually all vN), the symbolism is not subtle. Amy begins the escape from their human oppressors using an apple as a vehicle for their freedom (bite the apple, be free from enforced behaviour). When Eve bit into the apple, it granted the knowledge of right and wrong, an expression of Christian morality — no different than the tablets brought down from the hillside by Moses. But in Amy’s case, it frees them of posited morality — creating a void in which the vN may build and live by their own moral code.
In all of these cases, Ashby cracks the cover of fascinating debates, often introducing new twists to some very old discussions. In the twist described above, for example, it’s interesting that the messiah (Amy) bears the apple — a pleasant overturning of the traditional symbolism, positing the woman not as the first sinner, but as the agent of freedom — elevating herself through an act of creation. In Amy’s case, her human creators stand as pseudodeities over their world, and in her moral transformation, she elevates the vN to the same level. The original words of the old testament describe a god who does not want his creations to rise to the same level as the divine — making the sequence an apt retelling.
Similarly, the imposed moral system is rich with potential and implicit statements. One among many is that posited morals are fundamentally oppressive. Freedom (including the freedom to create or re-create life) are presented as being dependent on having the power to form and live by personal systems of morality. I could go on.
It’s tantalizing to read the second book in series, and find it littered with ideas that reframe tired debates in novel and interesting ways. Many of the best bits of iD (and its predecessor, vN) present the reader with twisted incarnations of classic science fiction tropes — but the ideas are almost immediately pushed into the backdrop. How could a reader not be disappointed when those gems are left bobbing at the surface while the plot plunges forward? It’s possible that I’m asking too much of a series that’s already telling an engaging story in a fascinating way — iD is adventure fiction, a story of the coming of age of an unexpected saviour, an episodic romp studded with out-of-control powers, quirky introspection, unusual romance and a fair bit of swashbuckling. Still, I can’t help hoping that Ashby’s next book finds a few moments to explore these ideas alongside the romance, explosions and adventure.