Recently, I had the pleasure of reading vN by Madeline Ashby, a thought-provoking book and one of the best debuts of the year. Thus, I'm really happy that she agreed to answer some questions about vN and her work in general.
Odo: I really like the idea of von Neumann robots that can reproduce by "iterating" copies of themselves. I've seen von Neumann machines used in several science fiction stories, but I think that your approach is unique and refreshing. How did you come with the idea?
Madeline Ashby: I was working on a Master's thesis related to anime and cyborg theory, so I was dwelling on issues of replication and reproduction a great deal. I was also watching shows like Naruto (in which the title character makes multiple copies of himself) and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, (in which having multiple copies of a body is normal). So I started wondering what it would be like to make a clone of yourself, that could then go and make other copies. And what would distinguish all the copies from each other, i.e. memories and experiences.
Odo: In vN there are a number of references to computer science concepts. For instance, you use binary numbers to enumerate the chapters and you mention Moore's Law and the way packets are routed in computer networks. Did you have to do a lot of research for writing vN?
MA: Actually, the binary numbers thing was my awesome publisher's idea. So I can't take credit for that. But I did do a lot of research. In particular, I focused on nanotube muscle, what dissolves it, and how much graphene you'd need to develop some serious memory.
Odo: You clearly pay homage to authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. What writers have influenced you the most?
MA: Hmm. In childhood, I read a lot of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. So they were big influences. So were Sebastien Japrisot and Haruki Murakami. Lately the people who influence me most are the people who are part of my writers' workshop, or who are emeritus members of it. That includes Peter Watts and Cory Doctorow. I also spend most of my time talking fiction with my partner, horror writer David Nickle.
Odo: I'd also say that movies have some influence in your writing. For instance, some scenes in vN reminded me of Blade Runner and The Matrix. Did you have in mind this kind of movie when writing vN?
MA: Oh, definitely. I love Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion. So I had those action scenes in mind when I was writing the novel. I wanted that kind of savagery and brutality. For robot battles, those scenes get surprisingly visceral and personal. That's what I was aiming for. I first watched Blade Runner in the third grade, and the intimacy of the violence scared me. I was still fascinated by it, though. My father showed it to me.
Odo: One of the most important aspects of the robots in your novel is the "failsafe" that prevents them from damaging humans. But many of the conflicts that the vNs have to face also apply to us, human beings. What is your position on the "free will vs. determinism" debate?
MA: That's a big question. I'll refer you to Peter Watts on that question, actually. Because I don't think the question is really "free will vs. determinism," but "perception of free will vs. biological reality." He's the expert in that debate. For me, the real question is about responsibility, and how we handle it. I'm a recovering Catholic, so I always feel guilty about something. But in the long run, that permanent sense of shame prevents you from taking real personal responsibility. Even if it is an illusion, it has a profound impact on our lives and we need to learn how to negotiate it.
Odo: vN is the first book of the Machine Dynasty. When can we expect the next instalment? Are you also working on other, different projects?
MA: The next book in the series is called iD. It's about Javier, a supporting character in vN. In it, Javier is on a quest for redemption and revenge, and he's trying to figure out who and what he's become and what he really wants out of life. Doing so involves learning more about the roots of the vN as an artificial species, about the church that funded their development, and about the failsafe.
Odo: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
I'm on Twitter a lot, @MadelineAshby. I also run my website, http://madelineashby.com. I'm at work on the sequel to vN right now, but I'm also at work on some strategic foresight contracts. That's a different kind of writing, but it's still writing.