As seen on Stumptown Books
What an interesting book! Although fantasy will always be my first love, I'm trying to become more familiar with sci-fi themes.
For example, I had never heard of a von Neumann machine. It's an important point to know about before going into this book as it's never really stated. Von Neumann machines are a sci-fi idea that originated in lectures from the late 1940s, given by John von Neumann, where he postulates about a robot that self-replicates with materials taken from its environment. Cylons are considered a form of von Neumann machines, for example. A lot of the time, von Neumanns are referred to as enemies, sent off into space because humans thought it would be cool to send out self-replicating space probes, but they come back smarter, bigger, and angrier, within a few years.
The vN (as I shall refer to them from here on out) in this book are completely humanoid robots. They eat all sorts of materials just to keep themselves running, like plastics and metals. At a certain point, if they eat enough, they will "iterate," that is, replicate, a baby form of themselves, which then goes out in the world to do the same thing. It seemed like this had been going on long enough that there should have been some sort of global crisis at the lack of materials, but that's not really what the book is about. Although there are a lot of unemployed humans because vN come in and do the same job for cheaper, the main focus of the novel is about Amy evolving into a different kind of vN.
It was interesting to read the decisions the author made when it came to her evolving. For example, Amy is considered a "Portia" model, as Portia was the first vN of her line. There are now hundreds of Portias running around, as they iterate and spread around. All sorts of crazy ideas are thrown at us - if Amy eats a piece of another model, she gains some of their special quirks. This was an especially questionable idea when she realized that eating her granny - the original Portia - made her a part of Amy's mainframe. Oops.
I'm a huge fan of the Three Laws of Robotics and all the crap that can go wrong with them, and they are employed with gusto here. A question that was raised for me is that the robots in this case are as intelligent as any human - so the three laws severely limit them. It felt inhumane. It felt like the robots needed more human rights, really, and that's a big deal to make your reader feel that way. The vN will always want to help a human, for example. Even if that human is a pedophile. I wish this concept had been explored a little more, it was really intriguing to see how Amy reacted to these ideas.
Amy is a great character. She's an adult, with all the privileges and responsibility that go along with that, but she was a kindergartner literally last week, with all the wide-eyed innocence and inherent trust that goes along with that. It was interesting to see her thrust into the world, but we get the chance to learn it along with her, since she started so young. Nice use of a plot device there, it worked quite well.
Javier was probably my favorite character, as he showed us all the ways vN aren't human. His morals are askew compared to Amy's, but it sounds like he's more the norm than she is. It was nice to be able to contrast two different vN models, and I would have liked getting to know some of the other models as well. Maybe the next book!
The world-building was also well done. It had a lot of elements of our world, just slightly different, so it was easy to identify with and imagine. It takes place in the year...2060 or so I think, and besides having a million vN running around, the world hasn't changed that much.
So why only three stars?
I did enjoy it, obviously. I liked the characters and the setting. It was shaping up to be a solid 4-star book - not my absolute favorite of the year, but a book that I would recommend without hesitation. Unfortunately, the ending completely
lost me. Amy stops being the character we've come to empathize with over the course of the novel. There's a random digression into something that was only hinted at once or twice throughout the whole book, so I just didn't care all that much. The ending was a big disappointment, and it colored my enjoyment.
Overall, a book that explores a lot of interesting robot concepts while keeping it completely human. I will be reading the sequel when it is released.
A note on the physical copy - the typeset was crazy huge for some reason, and every time I opened it up to read, it was jarring. It looks like a middle grade novel, all the letters are that large. And this is sooo not meant for young adults. It seems an odd choice for a sci-fi novel.