The idea of using robots to tell a story about slavery is hardly new. But in Madeline Ashby’s Machine Dynasty novels, she does something we don’t see as often: she tells the robot slave tale from the perspective of the enslaved. In the following email interview, Ashby discusses the newest book of the Machine Dynasty saga, ReV (paperback, Kindle), including what inspired and influenced this third installment.
For people unfamiliar with The Machine Dynasty Series, what are those stories about, and in what kind of world are they set?
The Machine Dynasty series is about a family of self-replicating humanoid robots called vN, and it begins with a little vN named Amy who eats her grandmother alive. Then her grandmother, Portia, lives as a partition in her consciousness, and tries to take over her body, and they go on the run together. Portia wants to hurt humans. Amy doesn’t. But they both would like to stay out of prison and avoid being experimented on.
And then for those who have read them, what is ReV about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, iD?
ReV is the third novel in the series, and it’s told from the point of view of that evil grandmother that Amy ate alive in the first novel. She’s now a free-floating consciousness distributed across multiple intelligent systems, including smart home technologies, which happened in the second book, iD. So this is her chance to really tell the reader her side of the story, and for her to re-consider what her life means without the capacity to do violence in the same way as she’s used to. I think this is the book where Portia finally gets to know herself. What does it mean not to have a body? What does it mean to identify oneself as a mother or grandmother, and not have a body? How do you protect your family when you don’t have a body? How do you show love and affection? Are all maternal impulses benevolent?
When in the course of writing the previous installments did you come up with the idea for ReV, and how, if at all, did the idea evolve as you wrote it?
I’m not sure if there was ever an “Aha!” moment in terms of the idea for ReV. I just knew that Portia had really never gotten the chance to tell her side of the story — we see glimpses of her consciousness, and what made her this way, but we never spend a lot of time with her. Amy is a very pro-human character; she was raised by a robot mom and a human dad, and she sees the capacity for good in humanity. Portia doesn’t. And I thought Portia deserved to have her say, because I’m tired of stories where the humans are the good guys by default.
I think one of my biggest inspirations in doing this series was that frustration — a lot of stories about robots are really rooted in much older anxieties about slave uprisings and rebellion. Very few of them are told from the perspective of the oppressed. I was so tired of robot stories that were really about humans. We have a lot of those. I wanted something different. I wanted stories not about humans deciding whether robots were human enough, but about robots deciding whether or not humans should be allowed to live.
Unless I’m mistaken — and please correct me if I am — iD and the first novel, vN, were cyberpunk sci-fi stories…
I’m not sure if they’re cyberpunk stories, because they focus almost entirely on the experiences of fully autonomous robots, and not human cyborgs who have modified or augmented themselves with technology. They’re also not about the role of corporations or government in re-defining humanity. So the books are missing those criteria. They’re hard SF in their way, but they’ve also been taught in Gothic Literature courses. Though the first book was often referred to as a YA novel because (gasp!) it had a girl on the cover, so who am I to say?
Are there any writers who had a big influence on ReV but on any of the other Machine Dynasty stories?
Genre-wise, my biggest influences are writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Philip K. Dick and Cory Doctorow and William Gibson. But I think the biggest literary influence on this story was the lady who started it all: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I think we’re still in dialogue with the themes in Frankenstein all these years later, myself included. I try to write in a naturalistic way. I don’t think about whether the sentence is good enough for a science fiction novel; I think about whether the sentence is good enough for any novel, period. And the same with characterization and pacing and so on.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games?
In general, the series was really influenced by anime like Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Evangelion, and Serial Experiments Lain, and stories like that. They’re all stories about identity, about hidden drives, and family secrets. They’re Gothic in their own way. There are a lot of references to those stories in the books, and to games like Silent Hill and Portal.
While ReV is the third novel in The Machine Dynasty Series, the series started with a novelette called The Education Of Junior Number 12 and a short story called “Give Granny A Kiss.” Are you planning on writing any more short stories, novelettes, or even another novel or a novella in this series?
I can’t tell you! That would be spoiling some things.
Now, along with ReV, you also contributed to another book, Scott Smith’s How To Future: Leading And Sense-Making In An Age Of Hyperchange. What is that book about?
How To Future is a practical, tactical guide to strategic foresight and opening discussion of possible futures. Scott and I work together frequently at his and his partner Susan Cox-Smith’s bespoke foresight firm, Changeist. We often lecture or speak together, and do appearances and workshops together.
How do you think working on How To Future influenced ReV and vice versa?
They were written alongside each other in that I would take breaks while waiting on edits to go look at How To Future, and so on. But they didn’t really influence each other, since one is a work of fiction and the other is intended for a business and leadership audience.
Going back to Rev, I asked earlier if that book had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it and the rest of The Machine Dynasty Series into a movie, show, or game?
I think it would work really well as an animated series. It was anime influenced, so seeing it in that format would be really special for me. But beyond that, animation would be a great way to get around some of the special effects required by a clade of humanoids who all look the same. I did some work on the Orphan Black continuation for SerialBox, and looking again at Orphan Black you realize what a task it was to cast one woman as all those clones. Tatiana Maslany did amazing work, as did her double Kathryn Alexandre, but it’s incredibly hard and it’s not something a lot of actors are up for.
Finally, if someone enjoys ReV and the rest of The Machine Dynasty Series, what similar kind of sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?