Writers and readers of science fiction love stories about artificial intelligence, robots, and mechanical beings whose sentience mirrors, matches or exceeds that of humans.
The stories stay fresh for the reasons stories about humans do—sentience confers individuality, which provides endless permutations for character and plot.
Madeline Ashby’s trilogy, The Machine Dynasty, explores the limits of sentience, the meaning of free will, and what it means to look, act, and feel like a human but be denied basic human rights.
Published in July, the third book, ReV (Angry Robot, 2020), shows readers the results of a final face-off between self-replicating humanoid robots and humans. That the robots, known as vN, want their freedom, is natural. What isn’t natural is the failsafe programmed into their consciousnesses that requires them to aid humans in distress or danger—or self-destruct.
With the failsafe in place, humans use and abuse the vN as they please—as mates, sex objects, laborers. “The failsafe became a way to talk about free will and consent,” Ashby tells me on New Books in Science Fiction.
Robot stories are usually written from a human perspective, but Ashby tells the story from the perspectives of the vN. “There’s a ton of science fiction stories about humans who can’t tell robots apart from other humans. But there are very few stories about robots who can’t tell humans apart from each other, or robots who are the ones judging what a human being actually is.”