Friday 16 November 2012


Madeline Ashby, 2012
(November 2012)

The more I think about this, the worse it gets. That kind of mirrors the reading experience, in that the first half of this book is very good but the second, not so much. We’ll obviously be discussing that second half in some detail, so don’t come whining to me if you didn’t want to hear it. I’m also going lay into an enjoyable book I liked in many respects, so you can be sure that I’ll be showing my working.

vNs are Von Neumann machines, sentient self-replicating robots struggling to be accepted by wider human society, as is so often the way of these things. The prologue introduces us to Jack, who has decided, much to his family’s chagrin, to settle down and raise a family with a vN female. So far so run-of-the-mill, we’re all nicely set up for your basic allegorical exploration of prejudice and discrimination from the point of view of a privileged male in a mixed marriage. We even get the standard interview scene whereby the well-meaning but inflexible avatar of the system (i.e. a teacher) castigates the non-conformist individual for the disruptive and potentially dangerous influence they may have on wider society.

But then there’s the blood, and the killing, and the cannibalism, and it very quickly becomes obvious that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Conceptually, however, there is almost nothing original about this book. I say that as an observation, not a criticism. There’s nothing wrong with nicking ideas as long as it’s done well, and early on at least it’s done very well. Whilst Jack is just a framing device the real protagonist, his daughter Amy, is engaging and compellingly drawn; the development of her character is both believable and absorbing, and I found myself genuinely caring about her. Ashby also demonstrates some impeccable good taste in her influences, which run the gamut from Verne and Lovecraft to Dick and Asimov to Valve, and she’s good at getting in the requisite nods to them; I particularly liked a cocktail called Tears in the Rain.

However, the most obvious recent parallel to vN is The Wind Up Girl, another good book that was categorically not without its own fair share of problems. Certain of which vN unfortunately, though less graphically, shares.

But first, the plot. It all goes swimmingly until about halfway through: robot commits violent act to save a loved one, people freak out, robot goes on the run, teams up with comedy sidekick/love interest, evades authorities with help from mysterious benefactor, ends up getting captured anyway due to multiple attacks of conscience, is shipped off to secure testing facility, is interrogated in disjointed VR sequence, escapes by using superlegs to jump out of a warehouse...

No, I’m not quite sure either. I spent the following couple of chapters thinking she was still in the VR, and kept waiting for one of her interrogators to bring her out whilst cackling evilly about how they now knew all her plans. Once it becomes clear that this jerky jump-cut (ahem) isn’t disorientating because it’s inside a simulation but is a real honest-to-goodness plot hole, then your entire perspective shifts and little things that you’d have let go before just keep nagging and won’t shut up.

I’ve previously threatened you with quotes from Edward Said, so here are two for your contemplation-

              “[T]he association is clearly made between the Orient and the freedom of licentious sex… In time “oriental sex” was as standard a commodity as any other available in the mass culture,”

              “Orientalism itself, furthermore, was an exclusively male province… it viewed itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. This is especially evident in the writing of travelers and novelists: women are usually creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.”

The most insistent of those nagging aspects are the ‘Japanese’ elements of the story. They start off quite nicely; the Digital Zion (‘Mecha.’ Ha!) is abbreviated to Dejima, which is a very neat little foreshadowing. We’re later told of RPGs featuring ‘Nobunaga and Ieyasu’ which is a little more off-kilter – like playing a WWII scenario as ‘Winston’ or ‘Frank’ – but what the hell, we may as well go with it, eh?

Early on we meet a seemingly random vN giving our heroes a helping hand: ‘a popular Asian-style model… Even under her bulky ranger clothes, her perfect hourglass figure was discernable.’ It eventually transpires that ‘Asian-style’ means Japanese. They all look the same.

To be fair, in-universe every unit of a particular model (‘clade’) looks identical. But each clade also seems to have unique traits: healing, photosynthetic skin, etc. The ‘Japanese’ clade’s unique trait? Networked communication. Wi-Fi telepathy. Yep, the Japanese models have a hive-mind. The ‘Japanese’ all look the same and have a hive-mind. Right.

Did I mention that they were all sexbots as well? Of course they’re sexbots. Prepubescent sexbots, at that. Japanese prepubescent sexbots who all look the same and have a hive-mind.

Again, in-universe some of that’s almost justifiable; vNs were originally designed by the customary kiddy-fiddling mega-church as companions for the poor benighted souls left behind after the rapture, so have all the necessary features to – and this really is the most appropriate word for it – comfort those who prove unworthy.

It’s more specific than that though. Every ‘Japanese’ vN we meet is sexualized in ways that are at best awkwardly out-of-place and more often than not flat-out creepy, and in ways that other models/clades/ethnicities aren’t. Here’s the list in full:

1.    Our nameless Power Forest Ranger from above, with her ‘perfect hourglass figure.’ This is as mild as it gets.

2.    Rei and Yui. Physically aged 10 and 7. The ‘daughters’ of Q.B., a self-confessed paedophile who got sacked from his last job for fucking dead babies. Told you it got worse.

3.    Atsuko. The mercifully fully-grown but perpetually semi-naked ‘girlfriend’/wish-fulfillment fuck-puppet of Dr. Dan, a tech-nerd shut-in. Atsuko has a debilitating combination of Stockholm Syndrome and an Electra Complex, but that’s fine because she’s feisty and isn’t embarrassed about flashing her snatch-
‘“Without LeMarque [the disgraced peado-cult high priest], and without his followers, we wouldn’t exist at all.” Atsuko folded her arms. Despite wearing only a shirt and no underwear, she managed to maintain an intimidating posture. Amy wondered if she could ever stand that tall and proud while being naked.’
I’m sure Dr. Dan stands tall and proud when etc etc…

4.    Rory. The final double-crossing Big Bad. The hive-mind queen bee, who we never actually get to see in person. But don’t fret, we still get the full quotient of wrong here because-
‘“Rory.” Amy sounded it out. Ro-ri. “Your default language has no L sound, does it?”
              “Our first daddy thought the pun was kind of cute,” Rory said. “You know? Loli? He was kind of racist.”’
The rejoinder to which pretty much writes itself. Being above that, I’ll just say this: Ro-ri my arse. Those long vowel markers don’t exist just for decoration. I should also mention that our Japanese antagonist commits her act of treachery in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

5.    Cthulhu. At this point I’d long since given up.

Again, it’s not only the ‘Japanese’ female vNs who are overtly sexualized, but every ‘Japanese’ female vN we meet is treated in this manner. Individually, each of these portrayals makes a sort of sense: Q.B. is meant to inspire revulsion; Atsuko’s boyfriend rails against ‘otaku braggart bullshit’ oblivious to the irony, an irony of which the author is clearly aware.

I want to believe – I really, really want to believe – that much of this is actually intended as a satire of otaku fanboys; witness the awkward fan-sub style cultural misappropriations which result in referring to daimyo by their given names, and the fetishization of ‘Asian’ female physiques which in reality tend to fall pretty far from the perfect hourglasses which represent the Caucasian ideal. Dan is a parody of their lack of self-awareness and Q.B. is the reductio ad absurdum of moe culture and those weeaboo wannabes who seek to emulate it.

Writing about racism doesn’t mean a writer is racist. Having characters with objectionable views, or creating worlds with ethical problems, doesn’t mean an author shares them, necessarily. But as with Rory’s ‘kind of racist’ father, Ashby makes lots of little half-completed nods to those issues without ever really addressing them head on. While most individual examples may be separately explicable, en masse they’re much harder to excuse. As much as she may be looking to critique these attitudes she’s also very directly playing to and thus benefiting from and reinforcing them. Trying to have her cake and eat it and that, disappointingly, is no lie at all.


  1. "sentient self-replicating robots struggling to be accepted by wider human society"

    Why would they give a fuck?..they must have a virus or they were programmed wrong...they are supposed to be better than us or are we all afraid of Skynet ;)

    1. Annoyingly, and not for the first time, you've managed to get to the heart of it in a single question when it took me a few hundred words. Asimov's laws keep popping up, is the equally short answer. That's actually one of the more intriguing aspects of the book.