vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Vector #269

This issue of Vector is dedicated, in part, to revisiting the subject of women writers of science fiction. Few female UK-based science fiction authors currently have contracts, but worldwide, there’s a great deal going on, a geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity which Cheryl Morgan surveys in this issue. I came away from reading it with a massively expanded to-read list, and I hope it inspires you similarly. Tony Keen examines the roles of death and transformation in Justina Robson’s books Natural History (one of the books on last year’s list of the previous decades best science fiction by women) and Living Next Door to the God of Love. In contrast, Niall Harrison examines a very different author, Glasgow-based Julie Bertagna. Her post-apocalyptic trilogy, which begins with Exodus, provides an intriguing comparison with Stephen Baxter’s current series of prehistoric climate change novels which began with Stone Spring.

The second part of Victor Grech’s three-part series on gender in science fiction doesn’t focus on women science fiction authors, but does deal with quite a few of them in the process of discussing the variety of single-gendered world in science fiction. In particular, he examines the in-story reasons, the biological explanations for their existence, and the degrees to which those mechanisms are found in the ecologies of our own world.

Shana Worthen

Vector 269

What a welcome sight! The post just arrived, and with it, the latest BSFA mailing.  In addition to Vector, there’s an issue of Quantum, the BSFA’s occasional newsletter; and a paper copy of the ballot for the BSFA Awards (also available online).

There’s also a NewCon Press sampler which includes excerpts from The Outcast and the Little One by Andy West and Kim Lakin-Smith’s BSFA best novel-nominated Cyber Circus. Ian Whates assures me that the booklet went to press well before the BSFA Award nominations for best novel were known and announced.

Lest the prompt arrival of the paper copy of the ballot worry anyone, we’re still planning to do a short story booklet of stories nominated for the BSFA award for the best short story of 2011; but the logistics of that take just long enough that it’ll be coming in the mailing after this one.

This issue of Vector is partially a followup to the poll which Niall ran last year, on the best sf novels by women written in the previous decade. It also has Adam Roberts’ reflections on writing music entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and Andrew M Butler’s review of the three versions of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which recently closed at the Tate Britain. (The review was printed here on Torque Control in late December to make sure it would  be read before the show closed!)

Vector 269 is labeled the Spring 2012 issue, which means we seem to have skipped winter entirely, despite what today’s chilly weather seems to imply.

Vector 269 contains…

Women SF Writers: An Endangered Species? – Cheryl Morgan
Death and Transcendence in the “Forged” Novels of Justina Robson – Tony Keen
Telling the World: The Exodus Trilogy by Julie Bertagna – Niall Harrison
Single-Gendered Worlds In Science- Fiction – Better For Whom? – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo, and Ivan Callus
On Science Fiction Music – Adam Roberts
John Martin: Apocalypse – A Review – Andrew M Butler

Kincaid in Short – Paul Kincaid
Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites – Andy Sawyer
Picture This – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis

Vector 268

The latest BSFA mailing arrived with the post this morning! I’d been expecting it any day now for the last week or so, after it been sent off to the black box of the publisher. And here it is, Focus (TOC) and Vector both.

This quarter’s Vector is primarily devoted to Diana Wynne Jones, who died in March this year. When I started putting the issue together, I’d hoped she would be with us for years to come, that she would be able to see the issue for herself. Instead, it became a memorial issue to a much-missed author whose influence was formative for many (including me).

Vector 268 contains…

2011 BSFA Awards – Donna Scott
An Excerpt from a Conversation with Diana Wynne Jones – Charlie Butler
Translating Diana Wynne Jones – Gili Bar-Hillel Semo
Diana Wynne Jones in the Context of Children’s Fantasy – Jessica Yates
The Mistress of Magic – Meredith MacArdle
On Screen: Two Filmed Versions of Books by Diana Wynne Jones – Gill Othen
Diana Wynne Jones: A BSFA Discussion – Farah Mendlesohn & Charlie Butler, transcribed by Shana Worthen
Infertility in Science Fiction as a Consequence of Warfare – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo & Ivan Callus

Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Kincaid in Short: The Heat Death of the Universe – Paul Kincaid
Foundation Favourites: Forbidden Planet – Andy Sawyer
Now and Then: Invisible Words – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis 

My apologies to Meredith, whose first name is missing an ‘h’ in the table of contents.

Vector #268

No, I think it’s more about the way to do it. With Tolkien, as I said in the book, it was “Gosh, you can write a whole three-volume fantasy – this is marvellous, let’s do this thing.” With other influences like C.S. Lewis, the “how to do it” thing that grabbed me was that he was always so completely clear about what was happening. You are never in any doubt who is where, and doing what – and much more complicated things than that.

Diane Wynne Jones

Vector #267


Certain topics ask for poetic treatment—love is one of them, and unrequited love in particular. Poetic writing is, through its intensity, writing that says more than it appears to say. Thus the love that dare not speak its name, in Lord Alfred Douglas’s words, lends itself to poetic treatment, in times when it focuses on an expressly forbidden topic. What we have here is, of course, essentially a literary structure: At its center is a guilty secret—and the guilt and the secrecy are both pivotal. The guilt and the secrecy creates a relationship between two persons, one who knows, and one who does not know. I suspect all writers, from time to time, can be drawn to that structure more or less strongly, whether the secret involves gay sex or not. But I suspect its hard to write a story using such a structure, possibly for its poetic potential, that is not going seem, to some readers, a coded gay tale—even to the surprise of the author; which I think may have been what happened here.

Samuel R. Delany

But the fact is, none of the writing I did about that time—or during that time—gives a direct portrait of my sexual life back then. To repeat, this was three, four years before Stonewall. Back then you didn’t write about things like that, except in code. You left clues that people could—sometimes—read, between the lines. But it was actually dangerous to write about them. You could get in real trouble. You could get your friends in trouble. So you didn’t do it—not in journals, not in letters, not in fiction. A few brave souls, like Ned Rorum or Paul Goodman, were exceptions—and later on, I tried to fill in a few incidents myself. But basically, that wasn’t me.

I tell you this, because it’s important to remember, when considering fiction—like “Aye, and Gomorrah”— just how wide a gap can fall between life and literature—and how social pressures control that gap, so that, in looking at, say, the two award-winning stories of mine that deal with matters gay from the second half of the ’sixties, you have to realize they are finally fairy tales in the way my anecdote about the African medical student cruising the park and his friends is not—even though the Science Fiction Writers of America, who handed out the awards, doubtless felt that they were congratulating me for bringing a new level of “mature realism” to the genre, simply because I was dealing directly with something they thought of as sordid and probably wouldn’t have recognized it at all if I had presented it in any other way. Possibly, at that time, I wouldn’t have recognized it either.

For much the same reasons Nabokov says that Madame Bovary— famed at its time of publication for its realism, it even helped found the school of realism—is finally as much a dark fairy tale as “Jack and the Beanstock” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

Samuel R. Delany

Vector 266

Vector 266 arrived with the post yesterday, along with Focus and Quantum, an occasional BSFA newsletter. It’s real, it’s approximately on time, and it might inadvertently convince recent BSFA members that Vector comes out slightly more often than it does, coming so soon on the heels of the previous issue. Really, the journal is still quarterly.

This is the 2010 year-in-review issue, featuring retrospectives on the novels, television shows, and movies of 2011, along with an article on Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, and two new column. One, (previously in Matrix) is from Terry Martin of Murky Depths. The second, “Kincaid in Short” from Paul Kincaid, is on Kate Wilhelm’s “The Infinity Box” and, bafflingly, we collectively managed to omit it from the Table of Contents, so it’s particularly important you know it’s there, starting on p. 34.

As long as I’m providing corrections: the version below includes Jonathan McCalmont’s name correctly spelled, and, where page numbers are provided, corrections to those too.

It’s also the first issue I’ve edited.

Cover of Vector 266, with HAL 2000Table of Contents

A Year in Review, Martin Lewis
2010: Books in Review, Vector reviewers
2010: Television in Review, Alison Page
2010: Film in Review, Jonathan McCalmont
Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight, Terry Martin
The Promise and Pitfalls of Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Anthony Nanson
Foundation’s Favourites: Scholars and Soldiers, Andy Sawyer
Resonances: Alpha Centauri, Stephen Baxter (p. 32)
Kincaid in Short: “The Infinity Box”, Paul Kincaid (p. 34)
First Impressions, edited by Martin Lewis (p. 37)

I’ll post the full list of books reviewed in a week or two, when our review’s editor is back from holiday.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Vector #266

3 • Torque Control • editorial by Shana Worthen
4 • A Year in Review: Looking Back at 2010 • essay by Martin Lewis
5 • 2010: Books in Review • essay by Graham Andrews and Lynne Bispham and Mark Connorton and Gary Dalkin and Alan Fraser and Niall Harrison and David Hebblethwaite and Tony Keen and Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont and Martin McGrath and Anthony Nanson and Martin Potts and Paul Graham Raven and Ian Sales and Jim Steel and Martyn Taylor and Sandra Unnerman and Anne Wilson
15 • 2010: Television in Review • essay by Alison Page
20 • 2010 in Film: Not My Kind of Genre • essay by Jonathan McCalmont
24 • Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight • essay by Terry Martin
26 • The Promises and Pitfalls of a Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle • essay by Anthony Nanson
30 • Scholars and Soldiers • [Foundation Favourites • 12] • essay by Andy Sawyer
32 • Alpha Centauri • [Resonances • 61] • essay by Stephen Baxter
34 • Kincaid in Short • [Kincaid in Short] • essay by Paul Kincaid
37 • Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer • review by Paul Graham Raven
38 • Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan • review by Jonathan McCalmont
39 • Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks • review by Marcus Flavin
40 • Review: The Technician by Neal Asher • review by Stuart Carter
40 • Review: Version 43 by Philip Palmer • review by David Hebblethwaite
41 • Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu • review by Martin McGrath
41 • Review: Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson • review by Anthony Nanson
42 • Review: Music for Another World by Mark Harding • review by Dave M. Roberts
42 • Review: The Immersion Book of SF by Carmelo Rafala • review by Maureen Kincaid Speller
43 • Review: Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead by Christopher Golden • review by Colin B. Harvey [as by C. B. Harvey]
43 • Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer • review by Niall Harrison
44 • Review: Feed by Mira Grant • review by Alex Williams
44 • Review: Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene • review by Shaun Green
45 • Review: Songs of the Dying Earth by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin • review by L. J. Hurst
46 • Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks • review by Donna Scott
46 • Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood • review by Anne F. Wilson
47 • Review: Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal by Sherryl Vint • review by Gwyneth Jones


[Mary] Gentle’s prose is sharp, her powers of invention brilliant, her characters real, especially the greasy, obese Casaubon with his pet rat. They are not necessarily likeable. Casaubon is a Lord, and not on Our Side (there’s a neat scene where he’s confronted with the woman who does his laundry who has to live on far less than the cost of one single garment), and when Valentine re-appears a couple of novels down the line she does a dreadful and unforgivable thing. But, in the best tradition of the malcontents in the Jacobean drama, boy, are they vivid! This was a new thing.

For a time I used the word scholarpunk for this fusion of erudition and bad-ass attitude. Fortunately no-one noticed.

Andy Sawyer

Nowhere was this tiredness more evident than in the lugubriously self-indulgent Iron Man 2. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) was something of an unexpected hit; its combination of clever casting and pseudo-political posturing caught the public’s imagination while its lighter tone and aspirational Californian setting served as a useful counterpoint to the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). However, the second Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark steps on stage in the sequel, it is obvious that something is terribly wrong. The film’s onanistic triumphalism and bare-faced declaration that social ills are best confronted by private sector moral entrepreneurs feels astonishingly ugly and politically insensitive at a time when private sector entrepreneurs are having their companies propped-up at the expense of the poor and the hungry. The decision to cast Mickey Rourke as a shambling Russian baddy is laughably pretentious in a film that ultimately boils down to a bunch of computer-generated robots punching each other in the face for about an hour.

Jonathan McCalmont

I found a Darwin site where a respondent asked “who else thinks Beatrix Potter may have developed her stories, about animals with increasingly human characteristics, from acquaintance with Darwin’s theory?” The idea that Beatrix Potter had to wait for The Origin Of Species before she thought of writing about reprobate foxes, trusting piglets, thieving magpies and insolent rats may seem ridiculous but this internetgeneration query is revealing. Our animal folklore is no longer refreshed by experience. In my own lifetime, here in the UK, the estrangement that began as soon as agriculture was established, has accelerated almost to vanishing point. We see animals as pets; as entertainment products we consume through the screen (where their fate, nowadays, holds a tragic fascination). We see them, perhaps, as an increasingly problematic food source. We no longer ‘meet their gaze’ as independent neighbours. The neo-Darwinists have even been doing their damnedest to break the link that Charles Darwin forged, when he transformed our deep intuition of continuity with the animal world into ‘scientific fact’.

Gwyneth Jones

And was Karel Čapek really writing about newts?

Gwyneth Jones

On the whole, however, Vint does a good job of disentangling “the animal” from the mix and Animal Alterity is an impressive achievement. A study of this kind isn’t meant to offer solutions and there are none (beyond a rather vague promise that post-humanism will blur the line between human and animal). Instead there’s a mass of evidence identifying sf as a resource: a treasury for Animal Studies academics; a rich means of bringing those moral arguments to life —drawn from an overlooked genre that has (always, already) developed sophisticated ways of thinking about looming problems that have only just occurred to the mainstream.

To the general reader, Animal Alterity offers food for thought and a quirky compendium of offbeat and classic titles. Could a “related book” on this topic become widely popular? I don’t know. In my day, sf fans tended to be petrol-headed meat-munchers, their concern for our stewardship of the ecosphere constrained by a passion for beer, mayhem and go-faster starships. Times have changed. The younger generation may feel very differently: I hope so.

Gwyneth Jones