Published by Angry Robot on July 31, 2012
Jack’s wife Charlotte and daughter Amy are von Neumann-type humanoids. The vN were created by religious folk who thought it would be nice for the unsaved to have some helpers after being left behind. That’s an original premise, albeit an unlikely one -- given that those who aren’t called to God’s side during the End Times are by definition unworthy of salvation, are religious extremists likely to devote resources to making their sinful lives more comfortable? If you can suspend your disbelief of that premise, the offbeat story that follows is full of entertaining surprises.
A less original premise (thanks to Isaac Asimov) is that a vN can never harm a human; a failsafe causes the vN to suffer if it sees a human in pain. That premise is tested by Amy’s grandmother (Portia) and other members of her clade, who seem perfectly content to cause havoc in the human population.
Amy engages in an act of humanoid cannibalism, busts out of jail, and watches a male vN give birth to a baby -- all in the first couple of chapters. Amy also contends with bounty hunters and rapidly emerging breasts while trying to ignore Portia’s ever-present nagging voice, which she has internalized for reasons that are (like many of the novel’s events) bizarre. Later she meets up with a vN named Javier who has a history of giving birth to children before abandoning them.
At times vN has the flavor of a comic book, complete with a super-powered heroine. There’s also an element of silliness -- maybe you could call it playfulness -- that pervades the story. To some extent the story is a family drama, albeit one in which most members of the featured families (Amy’s and Javier’s) are mechanical. To some extent the novel is a love story. It is in part an action/adventure story, in part a comedy, in a part a science fiction story that is light on the science. For all its strangeness -- including an ending that, like the rest of the story, I would never have predicted -- there is a poignancy that breaks through in the final chapters and comes to dominate everything else. I was uncertain how I felt about vN in the novel’s first half, but it grew on me as the story progressed and as I came to appreciate the characters.
vN follows memes that are commonplace in science fiction: whether intelligent sentience entitles a humanoid to human rights; whether freedom is simply the ability to say no. It expands the last question in an interesting way by asking whether freedom for an AI is the ability to harm a human. On the other hand, perhaps true freedom (for human and humanoid alike) is the ability to experience joy -- or love.
vN also touches on serious issues not frequently addressed in science fiction, including pedophilia and the perils of democracy (at least when tyrannical decisions are made democratically by vN). Still, this isn’t a story that a reader is encouraged to take too seriously. It is enjoyable, lively, and sweet, with just enough profundity to make the story worth thinking about after the fun ends.