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Book Review: iD – The Second Machine Dynasty

It may be out of place for me to include rough notes in a finished review. However, I’m willing to risk the critical faux-pas in sharing the first words I wrote about Madeline Ashby’s iD, the sequel to her debut novel vN: “Meta as hell.” And truth be told I’m cleaning that up a little bit as somebody once informed me that it’s not classy to drop F-Bombs in the first paragraph of a review. At any rate, should Dan Harmon find himself in need of an additional writer for Community’s fifth season he would do well to consider Ashby. She possesses an impeccable talent for weaving originality out of layers of referential nods, all cumulating in subtexts so deep a single review could not do all of them justice.

iD begins a little after the concluding events of vN. Amy and Javier, the eponymous von Neumann androids of the first novel, are living on the semi-sentient island Amy fashioned as a refuge for vN who wish to live far removed from human influences. Things turn ugly when a human shows up and rapes Javier through a manipulation of the Asimov-style failsafe built into he and every other vN. Skip ahead two beats and the island implodes, the vN are scattered, the digital essence of Amy’s homicidal grandmother Portia – who has always reminded me of Shodan from System Shockescapes, and Javier, written as a protagonist with almost no personal agency, begins a quest to find Amy.

Changing perspective from Amy in vN to Javier in iD reveals something of a more brutally honest speculation on how humans might use sentient machines designed by a Millenarian doomsday church. Amy grew up in the safety of suburbia and her entry into womanhood, as well as the world at large, was that of a stranger in a strange land. The vN who iterated Javier abandoned his son to a South American prison. From there Javier’s back story parallels that of a migrant worker, only with an additional layer of debasement because he’s not human. Worse still, though a testament to the strength of the book, is how Javier always seems to be on the edge of consciousness with respect to the way he is treated. The failsafe programmed into the vN not only keeps them Three Law compliant but adds a measure of Stockholm Syndrome to their daily existence.

As a stand alone feature, this commentary and narrative voice is quite apropos. It’s also a structural safety net in case a would-be reader has been living on Mars for the last fifty years and has no framework for understanding the novel’s in-jokes, references, and allusions. For readers who can engage with Ashby’s meta-storytelling, the conflict and fine details alike strike with all the more force.

Another benefit of this metatextual writing is that it creates an instant rapport between the audience and the author, further facilitating some incredibly efficient world building when both reader and writer are on the same semiotic page. More important, however, is the ability of the referential writing to stress the underlying notion that the world of iD could be our world. When the culture, both popular and esoteric, is shared between reality and fiction it leads the reader to a place where they are hard pressed not to think about machine rights as an emerging issue if technological growth continues along its current trajectory.

At the same time, it’s not all nods and prods at the dystopian/technocratic worlds of Akira, Brazil, Portal, and Blade Runner. About half way through the novel I came across a chapter called, “The Man of Constant Sorrow.” For those who don’t know, this is the song George Clooney et al sang in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a Coen Brothers adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. With one single chapter title it seemed like Ashby was daring me to re-read the novel through the lens of Javier as South American android Odysseus. Is the vN populated city of Mecha his Ithaca? Is Amy the story’s Penelope? I got about as far as framing the Baccarat hustler Javier meets as Cerce before I realized I was pushing even my own broad tolerance for tangents within a review. Meta as hell, indeed.

 

On a point of style, the novel’s ending felt like something of a game of chicken between Ashby and her readers. iD’s plot continues to build right up until the final pages. Only when I reached a point of “Dear god, how can she possibly finish this with so little left to the book?” did the prose adroitly call back to near-forgotten details from the opening act as a way of eloquently tying everything together. Now only one question remains: is the subtitle of The Second Machine Dynasty the island that Amy built, or the grander future she envisions for her kind at the end of iD? If the latter, does that mean we get another book?

iD is the very rare sort of sequel wherein knowledge of the first book isn’t a prerequisite. Ashby goes deeper into a future populated by humans and sentient robots without reinventing the wheel she built in vN. Though the structure of the story could be viewed through a classical lens, Javier is so far from the tropes of a Greek hero (or modern hero since they’re basically the same thing now) that he emerges as a commentary on conservative character writing. Meanwhile, the novel offers more layers than the offspring of Community and Inception, each of which says something different about design, surveillance, genetics, parenting, and other topics that I probably missed along the way. With these themes bound up in an ongoing discussion on human-machine relationships, iD proves approachable to all, but quick to reward the intelligent reader well versed ingenre storytelling.

iD – The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Published by: Angry Robot Books