Interview: Madeline Ashby, author of vN and iD

Madeline Ashby is the author of vN and her followup, iD, will be out on June 25th. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, as well as a few questions from fellow SF Signal contributor Paul Weimer, so please welcome Madeline to the blog!

Madeline-Low-Res-02-e1348636903481KC: Madeline, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I think I could safely say that. When I was little, I would wander around the house telling stories to myself. I’d do all the voices. I grew up in a little plot of unincorporated land near Seattle, Washington. If you remember Twin Peaks, it looked a bit like that — mostly because the town where they made the show is about a half hour from my parents’ house. Now there’s a Wal-Mart and everything, though, so it doesn’t look like quite the way it used to. There are fewer trucks, and fewer gun racks, and fewer Confederate flag bumper stickers. There’s been some progress.

Paul W: Your job as a futurist has you come up with scenarios for corporations and other polities. Where did you learn this skill? How did you develop this technique?
When I had finished my first master’s degree, my friend and fellow writer Karl Schroeder suggested I get into foresight as a consultant. He told me to apply to the Strategic Foresight & Innovation programme at the Ontario College of Art & Design. So I did, and I got in, and that’s where I learned how to formalize all the things I was already doing as a science fiction writer.

idKC: Will you tell us about your new novel, iD, out this month, and its protagonist, Javier?
Javier is a self-replicating humanoid. He’s iterated about thirteen times, so he has a bunch of copies of himself running around. He has an intact failsafe, which means he can’t hurt human beings. (At least, not physically.) It also means he tends to fall for human beings — until recently. This book tests his devotion to another humanoid, Amy. And that test takes him on a big journey, where he thinks he’s looking for her but he’s really searching for himself out there on the road.

KC: When you started the first novel in this series, vN, did you already have in mind how many books you’d like to write, or did you just decide to see where the series took you?
No. I started vN years ago, and at the time I was just concerned with finishing it. And then Angry Robot offered me another book, so I snapped it up.

KC: What kind of research do you do for your books?
Mostly I just pay attention to current science. I read abstracts. I read NewScientist and Discover and so on. If I have a specific subject I’m interested in, I look into that. It’s really about knowing what to look for, about framing the research appropriately.

Paul W: Being from Seattle, what was the motivation to half-destroy it so vividly as you did in the universe of the Machine Dynasty?
Mostly, I missed it. I miss living there. Every time I go back, I realize how much I miss it. And so in some way I wanted to destroy it because I missed it so much. Because the reality is that the place is due for a disaster. It’s perched on a fault line that is about to topple over, and the city itself is built on silt that will liquefy given the right type of vibration. I read the NOAA documents on the subject, and it’s terrifying.

ghostintheshellPaul W: Artificial Intelligences, especially those of human or even post-human level are tricky to write. Did any
fictional ones inspire you?
I was really enamored of the Tachikomas in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. They’re these little spider tanks that slowly develop self-awareness, and in a lot of ways they’re the real heroines of that story. They’re AI that have no desire to be human whatsoever. I really resent that cliche, when I see it in SF. There’s no reason that AI would ever want to be human. We’re not that special. We’re really not. I think a lot of people miss the idea that Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is a man!” speech in Act II is actually deeply ironic and self-deprecating. Richard E. Grant captures it perfectly in Withnail & I. We’re not that great. We’re the top of the heap, but that doesn’t mean being the best.

Paul W: In vN, what were the motivations in writing the main character as a ‘child’ A.I. as opposed to a more adult one?
I thought a child would have an interesting perspective on human life. I thought Amy would notice things that adults wouldn’t. And that, like most children, she’d be unrestrained in her analysis. She’d see the ugly parts and comment on them. I also thought that giving her more time as a child would allow her to emulate human behavior that much more effectively and accurately.

KC: Who, or what, has been the biggest influence on your writing?
I’m not sure I can answer that. At least, I’m not sure I can answer it honestly. I think that question is better answered by someone who’s read all my work and comes to a thoughtful conclusion on the matter. But otherwise, I guess the answer is this: what influences me most while I’m writing something is how I felt while writing the last thing. You’re only ever as good as your last project.

KC: If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
I’m not sure I’d take that bargain, actually. I thought about my favourite novels, and part of what makes them my favourites are the various contexts in which I read them: how old I was, where I was, who I was with, and so on. So I’m not sure I’d trade those experiences for others. Because I think that those contexts shaped my reading of each book, and I’m not sure I’d read each the same way twice.

Paul W: What non-fiction periodicals and books does a SF writing futurist like yourself read?
I have subscriptions to both The New Yorker and The Walrus. My partner’s father got them for me. I think the idea was so that we’d always have something to talk about when we got together, but it’s really given me a new appreciation for periodical work altogether.

KC: If someone were dipping their toes in the SF pool for the first time, what are a few titles that you would recommend?
I would read Makers, by Cory Doctorow, and Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson. I think both of those books are mainstream enough to get people into a futuristic mindset without ever reminding them that they’re reading science fiction. That’s because they’re reading good fiction, and whether the fiction is good or not should always be the primary concern. After that, I’d probably recommend a classic like The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Or her book The Dispossessed, which I think of more and more as the rich get richer.

vnPW: A fair amount of anime deals with transhuman subjects. As an anime fan, any suggestions to anime-ignorant fans who might want to try some after reading vN and iD?
I think they should definitely watch the new Evangelion movies, like You Can (Not) Advance and all those. They’re great. I also think that they should watch Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I have yet to see another fully-realized science fictional world as that. And, weirdly, Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s more of a steampunk fantasy series, but it has worthwhile things to say about the role of science in society. It engages at a deceptively playful level, but it’s really quite something once it gets going.

KC: What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a short story for the Hieroglyph Project, which is a collaboration between Arizona State University and the Center for Science and the Imagination, inspired by a speech Neal Stephenson gave on the need for more big ideas in SF. I’m working on a story about the eradication of all international borders.

Keep up with Madeline: Website | Twitter

idAbout iD:

Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption.

Javier’s quest takes him from Amy’s island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

vnAbout vN:
Amy Peterson is a self-replicating humanoid robot known as a VonNeumann.

For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that she alone can kill humans without failsafing…


  1. Great interview! I’m not sure when I’ll be picking them up, but I WILL be reading both vN and iD.

  2. I’m reading iD now and loving it. She’s going to be doing a character interview for me I’m so excited! I’ll have to check out her book recommendations for scifi! I also loved Ghost in the Shell!

  3. I’m about half way through iD, loving it. I meant to just read the first chapter to so, maybe pick it up again next week. . . and suddenly I was half way through! it is unputdownable.

    Yay for Fullmetal Alchemist! i was obsessed with that show/manga for quite a while, watching that is what got my family hooked on anime.

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