I started this post originally with a long rant about ebooks vs. print, one that didn’t need to be published. However, the connection between our physical responses to various forms of technology matters because of the subject material of vN, Madeline Ashby’s first novel that I read while gone on a trip, so I mention it briefly. It deals brilliantly with the creation of robots to do tasks that humans won’t be able to do (the context is that they are produced by a Left Behind group to help those who are, well, left behind after the Rapture). The Rapture doesn’t happen in the novel, but the robots are still here, and Ashby tries to puzzle out the problems and solutions that this leaves us with. There is robot cannibalism, pedophilia by those who keep robots little by barely feeding them, and merging with robot sea organisms designed to harvest energy from the sea. There are fail safes that are compromised, mixed robot-human families, and the problems of reproduction for robots and humans in a world of dwindling resources. And there’s a coming of age story that drives the narrative.
- Ashby knows her stuff – the fail safe for Amy, the main character who is based on nursing models of robots, fails for her grandmother because the nursing robots had to be able to tolerate human pain and suffering without melting down. Other types (the most prominent we see is Javier, a robot designed to work in the jungles of Costa Rica as a gardener of sorts) utterly cannot function when they see humans in pain, but the model Amy comes from had to help people who were in pain, and thus the fail safe cannot be so finely tuned that they break down. Ashby has upped the ante on Asimov’s three laws of robotics foundation…
- She also adds the idea of cloud memory to the context. These robots eat what we consider to be trash – plastics, metals, lots of which is left in landfills. They’re not cybernetic, as there is no biological material in them whatsoever, but they consume energy and thus need to ‘eat’ (Ashby never uses quotation marks around that word, to her credit). The scary part of this scenario is that robots can eat each other, a type of cannibalism that results in the memories and programming of the robots that they consume becoming part of their own bodies. The mutations that are available become infinite, and evolution (the actual passing on of characteristics from one generation to the next) becomes much less chance-driven, in a way that invokes eugenics. Ashby doesn’t shy from that invocation, as the grandmother who lives inside of Amy talks clearly about the traits that robots will need to pass to each other in order to survive in a human-dominated world.
- Having just watched ex machina, I am impressed by how Ashby avoids the evil robot created by evil human meme that the film fell into. Ashby is curious about how humans and robots interact in a world in which both are constantly changing and mutating and forming relationships, and neither is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – this novel is not a morality play. Amy’s father is truly her father even if he didn’t father her in the biological sense, but he also starves her intentionally and otherwise keeps her back in order to maintain the illusion of a normal reproduction/development cycle that Ashby portrays as clearly contrary to the machine’s essential nature. Javier, the forest android, spawns young ones all over the place and then doesn’t stick around to help them develop, actions that have unintended consequences. Grandmother might be violently anti-human, but she’s not convinced that humans will let her and the other robots develop as they choose, a fear that is true within the world of the novel. Fer crissakes, Amy eats her grandmother, and then has to live with the fact that she constantly battles her grandmother’s voice inside her own head. Whether robot-human relationships will take these paths is something that none of us can predict, but these possibilities seem logical and dynamic and provide us ways to look at how we interact with our technology without resorting to the dystopia-utopia narrative.