26 June 2012


Today I am really excited to have author Madeline Ashby joining me on the blog to kindly answer a few questions about her debut science fiction novel vN and her passion for science fiction. vN looks at how humanoid robots could be used to enhance our lives, and whether they may not be all that different to us.

vN will be released in August 2012 by Angry Robot, and you can read my review of it here or you can head on over to Amazon to grab yourself a copy. Be sure to check the bottom of the post for the links!

Your debut book vN is coming out in August 2012 [UK; July in US]. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
vN is the story of Amy Peterson, a self-replicating humanoid robot who's lived with her synthetic mother and organic father for five years. She's been grown slowly, at the speed of an ordinary human child. When her synthetic grandmother shows up and tries to kidnap her, she eats her alive. Literally. Then her grandmother lives on as a partition in her drivespace, providing snide (and disturbingly violent) commentary as Amy goes on a journey of discovery that includes escaping jail, getting her first job, and figuring out why she alone can harm human beings.

What sparked the idea for self-replicating humanoids?
It started out with a question I had while watching Naruto and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. (They used to air on the same night, in Toronto.) I wondered if Naruto, a ninja-in-training who can make multiple "shadow clones" of himself, used the copies in parallel process. Could Naruto use them to do high-order math problems, like a bunch of PS3s rigged together as a supercomputer? Could the clones have ideas on their own? Then I wondered the same about the Tachikoma units in GITS:SAC. (My first husband had a theory that the Tachikomas would become von Neumann machines in their quest for individuality and sentience, replicating extra versions of themselves to take over after they got scrapped.) At the time, I was working on a thesis on anime and cyborg theory, so these themes of identity and replication and reproduction were in my head all the time. I started wondering what it would be like to be a person who iterated multiple versions of herself, von Neumann-style.

What makes von Neumann-type humanoids different from humans?
vN cannot hurt human beings. They can't even really simulate what it would feel like to do so. All models have a built-in failsafe that cripples their memory and processes if they even consider hurting a human being. They start to stutter, like a buffering video. They have "a humane response to inhuman behaviour," as one human puts it, in the novel.
Aside from the failsafe, vN also iterate copies of themselves. They reproduce asexually, depending on how much they eat, and what they reproduce is an exact replica of themselves. So they have some issues about the differences between themselves and their iterations. I suppose that doesn't make them any different from humans, really, but it does re-frame the problem.

What qualities do you admire most in Amy?
Amy is very brave. Almost foolishly so. But I admire it all the same, because she doesn't pussyfoot around wondering what to do. She's willing to try and fail. She sees a problem and tries to solve it. That's because deep down, she doesn't accept things as they are. She knows they could and should be better. She insists on that. And I like that about her. Amy does not avoid the fight. She runs straight for it.

Who was your favourite character to develop and write for in vN?
Hmm. It's a tie between Javier (a supporting character) and Portia (Amy's grandmother). Portia is more fun to write. She tends to be factually right, but morally wrong. She's also completely comfortable with her villainy. She relishes it. She's proud of it. It makes her happy. But Javier is different. He's a very active character who's resourceful enough to get things done, and experienced enough to know how the world really works. So I think they both add something crucial to a story about someone growing up too fast.

If you were to 'sell' vN using a single quote or line from the book, what would you choose?
Hmm. That's tough. Maybe, "I'm tired of loving humans."

If you could, would you have a vN as a partner?
Maybe when I was elderly. I think vN would be good partners for a lot of people, but the elderly in particular. People who have had plenty of relationships already, or even just a few strong ones, who need someone who won't abandon them and who will love them unconditionally as their lives become steadily more awkward and difficult, and who won't die on them in the process.

What attracts you to the science fiction genre?
I grew up watching and reading science fiction. It was a constant presence in our household. I was the kid who explained The X-Files to all the adults, because they couldn't understand the plot. But in general, what drew me to science fiction were the words of Ursula K. LeGuin: “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”I think science fiction has the power to do exactly that. I think it can showcase many possible futures, so we're better equipped to choose the ones we want. And I think that in a culture that is so unabashedly anti-intellectual, anti-factual, and anti-science as this one, writing science fiction is even more important. I mean, the anti-vaccination movement has brought on measles outbreaks in California children. We need science. We need inspiring stories about science and the people who practise it.

Which authors or characters inspired you when you were growing up?
I was a big fan of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Mahy, and Sebastien Japrisot. I discovered the first few in elementary school, and Japrisot in junior high. In high school I discovered anime and manga. I watched Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell and Akira and all the big titles I could find. (I also went through a big Dune phase, senior year. It really put prom in perspective.) In college, I discovered Haruki Murakami and Ursula LeGuin and William Gibson. I also watched Cowboy Bebop and Stand Alone Complex and Fullmetal Alchemist. At the time, I was in a classics-oriented program at a Jesuit school, so it was a fun mix.

As a debut author, what has been the most exciting/challenge thing about getting published?
The most exciting thing is the fact that it actually happens. I really didn't expect anything to happen. I'm friends with a lot of novelists, and they all have trunk novels that have never seen the light of day. So, I had prepared myself for that. I knew this might wind up being a prototype and nothing more. The fact that people were interested in it, and even wanted to purchase the manuscript, was the real surprise.

Thank you so much Madeline for taking time to answer my questions! If you would like more information on Madeline or her first book vN, you can find it here: 

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