Today we're interviewing Madeline Ashby, the author of the cyberpunk robo-novel vN, which is hitting stores worldwide later this summer.The book tells the story of Amy, an android whose "failsafe" (think human-harming inhibition) has failed. Declared dangerous, she is being stalked and hunted from every angle and shadow. The novel is a look into a future where we live side-by-side with second class citizens who are mistreated and abused by people from all walks of life. While the android technology might not be familiar, the actions of the abusers are unsettlingly recognizable.
vN is a great read, and an incredible opportunity to get into Madeline's head. She has graciously agreed to an interview with us, and I encourage you to read all the way through to the end. You'll laugh, you'll knit your brow, and most of all, you'll think. This is a damn smart woman, and I am pleased to present you with this interview.
1. Madeline, I’d like to thank you for the chance to interview you. I’m hoping to help my readers learn more about you—so we might as well start at the top. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Covington, WA. It's a tiny little bedroom community outside Seattle. It only incorporated recently. If there's a bright centre to the universe, it's the place that's furthest from. It's also a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Especially on Saturday nights.
…Actually, what it's like is Twin Peaks, not Mos Eisley, probably because it's near the real Twin Peaks, Snoqualmie Falls. At least it was like that when I lived there. There were Douglas firs and empty fields and ramshackle barns and campers rusting on blocks. Now there's a Wal-Mart and a Costco and a Kohl's, and still no damn movie theatre.
2. Your novel, vN, takes place in the western US, where Amy and Javier are forced to flee from just about everyone. What made you decide to set the novel out there?
I grew up out there, for one thing. I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the town I just described. Until one disastrous trip to Deception Pass, my parents and I did a lot of camping in the national parks out there. We hiked through the Hoh Rainforest and other places. I still think of myself as a West Coast person despite living in Toronto, mostly because I make eye contact and talk to strangers.
3. Your novel swings around sentient androids, called “von Neumanns.” You have a very detailed vision of your these artificial beings, from the materials used in their bodies to the limitations of their minds. What inspired your interest in robots?
Hmm. Probably my dad watching Blade Runner with me when I was in the third grade. Or even earlier, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with him. But what I really responded to where the depictions in Ghost in the Shell, particularly the animated television series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
4. One of the most interesting aspects of the vN are their history: they were developed primarily by a religious interest. What gave you that idea? How did that idea develop?
Well, I wrote the novel before DARPA decided to run a whole competition for high-functioning humanoid robots. Before that, I thought that the quest for humanoid robots was misguided but compulsive. We can't help it. It's in our DNA. We love to make things in our own image, even when that image or that form is comically inefficient for the task. The Golem, Galatea, Coppelia, Pinocchio, Hatsune Miku. It's all there in the culture. But the number of labs developing humanoid robots was pretty small, if very persistent. Or rather, the number focusing on a totally functional humanoid was small. The other humanoids are all purely for nursing or customer service, and most of them are Japanese, as a consequence of that country's falling birth rate and Draconian immigration policy. They're not permanent companions. They're not what Asimov or Dick or Shirow had in mind.
So I thought that in order to build a fully functional humanoid robot for mass consumption (and not just to say that you could), you had to have an almost fanatical belief in them as a necessary piece of consumer technology. As necessary as indoor plumbing. And the only reason you'd come to that conclusion about something so frivolous as humanoid robots would be to think that the world was coming to an end, that the Rapture was upon us, and that the best way to minister to those left behind would be to grant them companionship and assistance during the Tribulation.
But now DARPA just wants them for combat medicine and bomb disposal, and I feel silly.
5. Now, there is a long precedent of androids in sci-fi, from Sonny in I, Robot to Bishop in Aliens, and all the way down to Amy, Portia, Javier and the others in vN. What were some of the most important influences for you as a writer following in the footsteps of Isaac Asimov and Ridley Scott?
By Ridley Scott, I think you mean Philip K. Dick. But I take your point. I saw Blade Runner before I read …Electric Sheep or Asimov's robot stories, so it exerted a far greater influence on me. In fact, I probably also watched Alien before that, and of course there's a very powerful plot arc about a synthetic humanoid in that film. But my most important influences probably came from Masamune Shirow and Hideaki Anno and Donna Haraway. A few years ago, I tweeted something like "While you were reading Tolkien, I was watching Evangelion." And my friend Adam Rakunas picked that up and made little buttons out of it on Zazzle. The Tolkien people made a fuss, so we had to take them down. (Zazzle later explained this as a "miscommunication.") But that little tweet speaks to my cultural lineage. There's frankly a lot of pulp SF that's outside my experience. I had anime and manga, instead, with a lot of supplement from Stephen King and Ray Bradbury -- the people who taught me how short stories should be written. When I was fourteen, I was reading Sebastien Japrisot, and basically the whole Vintage International imprint. All these mainstream literary novels with brushed covers. It wasn't until I got into anime in high school that I found depictions of a subjectivity really resonated with me. That led me back to science fiction, to Frank Herbert and Ursula LeGuin, and ultimately a workshop of genre writers. I've gone backwards. My first big chapter book was To Kill A Mockingbird. I read it when I was seven. Now I write about killer robots. I didn't grow out of SF, I grew into it.
6. Your vN blow current robot technology away. While our best robots are capable of dancing, building toys, and reacting to spankings, your vN are dodging bullets, replicating, and living happy marriages with human counterparts. Do you think that a being like a vN is truly within the technical grasp of mankind?
Well, I tried to write about technologies currently in existence, or at least in development in labs. Carbon tubing can respond like muscle. Polymer-doped memristors do exist. The skin is a problem, of course. It's hard to imagine a skin-like substance impregnated with photovoltaic pigments that mimic cyanophageous algae. Silicone probably wouldn't cut it. But my point was basically that to get a human-like being, we should go to the human scale. Which isn't actuators and hydraulic muscles. Humans are built at the level of the cell. That's where all the most important machinery is. If you want robots to replicate the organically ordered chaos we take for granted, we should start at that level.
7. The grasp of mankind is one of the things examined in your book. Specifically, our ability to treat others as equals. Unfortunately, you paint a bleak picture—we learn about pedophiles and abusers who take advantage of vN. These moments in the book are both shocking and heartbreaking. What was it like to have to follow the thought experiment of a world with vN to its logical terminus with pedophiles and sexual abusers?
It wasn't that difficult. It's a pretty natural conclusion. Charlie Stross comes to a similar point in Rule 34. What really clinched it for me was reading yet another thread in the "Is moe anime creepy or not?" debate within the anime community a few years ago, and someone commented that they liked moe (budding) and loli (pre-adolescent) characters because watching them was an outlet for their desire to have a romantic relationship with a child. This individual was by far the minority, of course. And a lot of other fans in the thread reacted to him or her as creepy and weird and dangerous. But the fact is that if we as humans have outlets for our more troubling desires, we use them. So it wasn't hard to imagine the vN being used that way at all.
8. One of the key points of the book is that Amy and Portia (the evil grandmother occupying Amy’s head) are not bound by the “Failsafe” that keeps vN from harming humans. What was your process in developing the vN’s reactions to and against the failsafe?
It's part Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange, part Spike's head-chip in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part crucifix glitch in Blindsight, by my friend Peter Watts. That's the lineage of the idea. I was really tired of those Asimov stories where the robot just gets caught between competing Laws and enters a loop. He wrote them brilliantly, but I didn't need to add to that canon. I wanted to depict something visceral and relatable, like a migraine. I suffer migraines on occasion, which is probably why I thought of it that way. Basically, I wanted an allergic reaction to hurting human beings, or even simulating the possibility of doing so. But because vN don't feel pain, they had to experience another sensation: a buffering, sort of. A slowing down. In other words, a stroke. Damon Knight proposed something similar in "The Country of the Kind."
But even lacking that allergic reaction isn't really cause to hurt human beings. I hate it when depictions of robots gaining sentience treat violent rebellion as the next logical step. It's not. Sentience does not equal malice. Portia doesn't hurt human beings because she wants to be free. She does it because she enjoys it. Amy is torn -- she knows violence is wrong, but she herself has solved problems with violence. But even the vN with intact failsafes are still clever and resourceful. Javier has the allergy to violence against humans, but he still manages to achieve his goals consistently.
9. The book ends strong and definitively, but there are still many stories to tell. Do you anticipate returning to chronicle more of Amy’s life, or other stories from her world?
Thank you! I was really worried about the ending. To answer your question, my publisher bought two books from me: vN and the sequel to it, which I'm calling iD for now. The latter is told from the perspective of Javier. He goes on a quest for redemption and revenge, and along the way finds out more about the roots of the failsafe, and New Eden Ministries, and the so called "Stepford Solution."
10. Bonus question: Who would win in an all-out fight? Roy from Blade Runner, or Portia from vN?
Oh, that's really hard. I think Portia would probably ally with him and then turn on him at the last second. I think the real question is who would be on top, while they were still having all kinds of dirty Replicant hate-sex.
Travis grew up in Tonawanda, NY, on the outskirts of Buffalo. He recently graduated from SUNY Oswego with bachelor's degrees in English and Adolescent Education. Travis loves post-apocalyptic fiction and hard Sci-fi.