MADELINE ASHBY’S SECOND NOVEL, a sequel to her first, is engaging and better written than her debut, but it doesn’t address many of the flaws of the original. Ashby’s novels are set in a universe where humanity has created human-like robots, called “vN,” designed to carry out the tasks that human beings are no longer interested in undertaking. The technology was originally developed by New Eden, a cult that ostensibly wanted to create companions for all the sinners who would be left on Earth after Judgment Day. Originally vN were designed to satisfy the desires of “perverts” — pedophiles, mostly — as the cult saw the creation of such companions as an act of mercy. To prevent the robots from harming or killing the sinners, even at their request, a fail-safe was designed — à la Asimov’s famous laws of robotics — that ensured no vN could ever harm a human or even watch a human being harmed without either intervening or shutting down on the spot.
While an original construct, Ashby’s world-building in this, her second, novel still does not make clear how and why vN were eventually utilized to fill low-paying, manual-labor jobs. Supposedly New Eden sold the technology to commercial companies who then manufactured a vN model best suited for nursing, one designed to work in rainforests, and so on. Most of Ashby’s construction of her world relies on the idea that vN were never truly necessary to humanity, merely useful. And when their usefulness waned, they turned into homeless vagabonds or had to rely on the kindness of humans to take them in in exchange for various services.
Ashby’s attempt to paint vN as an oppressed minority — she draws on many parallels with real-world civil-rights struggles when describing society’s attitudes toward vN — was one I never found quite convincing. The book never addresses why vN weren’t used for space exploration, for example, as superhuman pilots of spacecraft who could live for eternity and endure harsh conditions. Or why they didn’t find their place in the financial industry, which could surely use entities with unlimited computational power and no need for sleep.
In her first novel vN: The First Machine Dynasty, Ashby introduced us to Amy, a vN raised by a human father and a vN mother who kept growing at an artificially slow pace (vN can reach full maturity within a few months if fed sufficiently) in order to experience a human childhood. Like all vN, Amy’s mother was capable of cloning herself in a process called “iterating” that physically resembles a human pregnancy. At five, Amy’s family was attacked by her grandmother, the vN revolutionary Portia, who is tired of human oppression and has spent generations trying to iterate an offspring who could help her put humanity in its place. Although Amy’s mother turns out to be a disappointment, Amy herself is the heir Portia’s been looking for since, as is discovered in the attack, Amy lacks the fail-safe mechanism that makes her incapable of watching or aiding in human suffering.
Perhaps the most interesting and innovative element Ashby brings to the cyborg genre is the idea that the fail-safe, a mechanism humans designed simply to make their machines obey and protect them, in fact obliterates a vN’s free will. The reason Portia’s cause has trouble gaining any traction among vN is that vN are predisposed to falling in love with humans and viewing them through the rosy, helpless lens of infatuation. It’s not simply that vN are physically incapable of disobeying — it’s that with enough exposure they begin to want to obey humans.
The starkest and most brilliant example of this is when, in Ashby’s first novel, Javier, Amy’s newfound best friend and vN confidante, talks of how a human woman he had an affair with sold one of his children at a supermarket parking lot and not only did he not stop her but in fact thought her actions were moral and correct. Once he stopped interacting with this woman, he regained his critical faculties and felt used and angry. Away from humans, Javier and all other vN are capable of making their own decisions. But when around them, the fail-safe makes vN incapable of saying no.
iD: The Second Machine Dynasty is the continuation of Amy and Javier’s story, both of them now living on a secluded island of Amy’s creation where they and other vN can be safe from humans and create their own little world. Javier’s many children, ranging in age from several years to a few months, reside on the island as well. Although Amy only ever wanted the human world to leave her alone, the humans, of course, refuse to do so.
New Eden, now disgraced and mostly disbanded, its leader having been convicted of sexually assaulting children and many of its members discovered to be pedophiles, sends a minister to Amy’s island who convinces Amy she should let him stay for a while and observe. Although Amy suspects Mitch intends to hurt her, she has no fear of him as, being the only vN not affected by the fail-safe, she knows she could kill him at any time. Mitch, however, takes a different approach and instead manipulates Javier into killing Amy by feeding her poisonous food. He achieves this by using Javier’s fail-safe as leverage, and when Javier offers him sex in exchange for Mitch leaving them alone, he rapes Javier and forces him to harm Amy anyway.
After Amy’s death, Javier embarks on a journey to attempt to bring her consciousness back, hoping she managed to escape in one form or another. Javier’s journey through the world is also his journey through his old life, the people he’s known and adventures he’s had, as he cashes in old favors, meets his father for the first time since he was a child, and learns that at least one of his children survived the attack on Amy’s island. Raised in prison, where he ended up as a child because of a crime his father urged him to commit, and having lived alone for most of his life, Javier has spent much of his time trading his sexual services for money. Always appealing to rich humans because of his good looks, Javier has lived the life of a kept man, until his lovers eventually grew tired of him. In vN, he was positioned as the contrast to Amy’s innocence and sheltered suburban experiences. In iD, however, Ashby doesn’t delve deeper into the questions regarding free will, consent, and sexual assault that her world-building seems designed to explore.
In Javier’s mind the difference between the affairs he’s had with humans and Mitch’s violent rape is very clear. Though Mitch raped him, —Javier, being a robot, could have pushed Mitch away or physically stopped him at any point without causing Mitch any physical harm and thus awakening the fail-safe. Mitch’s actions were coercive because he intended to force Javier into a sexual act. But Javier’s previous lovers, including the one who sold his child, are never assigned blame for coercing Javier into anything.
This sidesteps, disappointingly, the meatiest, grittiest, most fascinating aspect of Ashby’s universe. Can a species biologically designed to obey and adore humans ever act of its own accord around them? Is there any freedom for robots at all if we restrict them to never being able to harm us? Is giving them true freedom necessarily also giving them the ability to eradicate us? Can we be truly moral, claim to treat them fairly, unless we grant them the ability to destroy us? Ashby’s universe seems specifically designed to raise these questions, yet in both her novels, she chooses to ignore them. Javier tells Amy multiple times about how humans have a pull over him, how he loses his sense of self when he’s around them, how he starts out thinking he’s in control and then loses the ability to object to any of their actions. And how despite this process repeating itself, Javier is forced to continue to interact with humans and rely on them for survival.
The book deals constantly with issues of gender and sexuality. Javier identifies as a man but has also given birth many times, subverting the traditional relationship between biology and gender. Javier also makes a living thanks to his charm and good looks, characteristics that are more commonly associated with women protagonists. However, Ashby’s timid world-building keeps these subversive elements from significantly impacting the story. Javier’s view of sexual assault is simplistic, and the book never draws any parallels between the culture of rape and the overall atmosphere of fear of sexual assault that vN have to endure. Furthermore, most of the men Javier meets (and almost none of the women) are pedophiles, and pedophilia is used by Ashby as both characterization and plot device. Aside from being repetitive, this serves to reduce the complexity of iD’s universe. Instead of dealing with shades of gray, the book often falls back on using pedophilia as an explanation for a character’s history or motivations.
As with vN, iD creates compelling characters and maintains momentum and pacing admirably. A few chapters in the book becomes impossible to put down, as Javier journeys across the world to resurrect Amy, running across old friends and foes and getting to the heart of New Eden, the genesis of vN creation. Javier’s journey is both physical and personal — he must confront the relationships he’s built with his children, the decisions his father made when Javier was little that now, as a grown man, he sees in a different light. Being inside Javier’s head, with his guilt over his betrayal of Amy, all his various regrets and accomplishments, is fascinating and engaging. Javier yearns for forgiveness, for safety, for someone to accept him as he is, and all of these are common human struggles that are easy to identify with.
The book has excellent pacing. In both of her novels, Ashby includes a seemingly unrelated prologue that gives the reader vital information about her characters’ world before delving into the point of view of the protagonist. In iD, the prologue is shorter, more succinct, and better executed than in vN, and the strategy overall works well to let Ashby focus on the emotional plot once the details of establishing the world have been taken care of. Overall the book is an easy, engaging read, with strong, interesting characters but unfortunately flawed world-building.
Marina Berlin is a film and literary critic.