Madeline Ashby’s 2016 Company Town is a standalone science fiction novel that has received enough acclaim — in large part due to its position in Canada Reads—that I have as yet been unable to obtain a copy1. That is why this is a review of her 2013 novel, iD.
iD is the second instalment in Madeline Ashby’s Machine Dynasty series.
Every von Neumann robot that has ever been built comes with an infallible fail-safe that will kill the robot deader than the dodo if the robot fails to protect and serve their humans. Every robot save Amy, that is. Amy’s failsafe does not work. What’s worse from the human point of view is that vN robots spawn copies unless actively prevented; all of Amy’s iterations will have similarly defective failsafes.
There is an easy solution: simply kill Amy. Or rather, use her lover Javier’s failsafe to compel him to do it for the humans.
This simple plan has only one flaw.
Unlike humans, the contents of a robotic mind can be copied, backed up for later reincarnation2. As long as even one archived copy of Amy’s mind survives, she could potentially rise from the dead. There is at least one copy of Amy out there and Amy’s unwilling murderer Javier is highly motivated to make sure it gets used.
The only problem is that Javier does not know where precisely the archive is. He has some leads. If he can survive a quest that will lead him through the unsavoury underworld of robotic brothels and worse, Amy will live again.
The mere fact that Amy ever existed is an existential threat to humanity. Even if Amy never rises, the knowledge that failsafes can hacked is widely known. All it would take to create more failsafe-immune robots is another copy error (like Amy) or some bored hacker. Any robot could have their failsafes hacked. All robots are potential threats.
Solving the robot problem is as easy as solving the Amy problem. The solution is called“genocide.”
If it seems as if the robots were designed to be abused, that’s no coincidence.
As one minor character puts it
“We’re all facing the goddamn robot apocalypse because some nerds didn’t have the sack to ask a girl out.”
The people who mandated the creation of the vN robots wanted a docile population of servants who could not even think about rebellion. Human authority over robots is absolute. We all know what absolute power leads to.
Of course, intentions may not lead to the expected results. The failsafe is not infallible and robots now know they all have the potential to be free of their human owners. More, the humans have given robots compelling reason to seek out that freedom.
Normally I would moan endlessly about the amount of sexual abuse in iD. Since no robot has the ability to say no, all human-robot sex is abusive and sex is one of the main uses to which robots are put. In this case, Ashby’s intention isn’t to titillate, but to draw the reader’s attention to issues that authors like Asimov preferred to paper over. The results are off-putting because the situation itself is inherently repellent … as long as one considers the situation from the perspective of the exploited.
This isn’t a fun read but it did keep my attention. It may be that the third book will develop along Hey Baby, Want to Kill All Humans lines. If so, the humans have earned their reward.
- Because I focused on libraries and never thought to make time to hit a bookstore. Where there are reportedly mountains of her books. Learn from my fail. Think inside the (big) box (store).
- Given the ability to come back from the dead and a compulsion to iterate limited only by starvation, I don’t see how the vNs will avoid massive population issues in the very near future.