The Big Idea: Madeline Ashby

What do an artificial person and a lost (and important!) government document have to do with each other — and Madeline Ashby’s latest novel, iD? You’re about to find out, from Ms. Ashby herself.


It’s funny, the things your book can tell you about yourself. When I wrote vN: The First Machine Dynasty for Angry Robot Books, my “big idea” was to write about robots from the robot perspective. Specifically, I wanted to write about the one self-replicating humanoid — Amy Peterson — who could hurt human beings. All the others would remain beholden to their “failsafe,” a feature programmed in by the Rapture-minded megachurch that funded their development, but Amy would be different. Amy wouldn’t see what was so special about human beings. Amy wouldn’t love them.

I left my husband shortly after finishing it.

Staring down the barrel of a sequel, I decided to invert everything from the first book. How would it feel to be a robot with an intact failsafe? How would he navigate a world whose relationship to its robot population was changing? How could he protect himself without resorting to violence? And that’s the “big idea” behind iD: The Second Machine Dynasty. It’s the story of Javier, Amy’s love interest from the first book, as he makes his way from Puerto Limón to Las Vegas to Walla-Walla to Nagasaki. It’s a story about a robot uprising, sure. But my idea was to tell that story on the personal scale — to talk about one humanoid turning away from humanity.

Making that big idea happen was tough. I didn’t possess the emotional wherewithal required to confront my subject matter head-on, at first. The only other fiction I wrote that year were science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs and the government of Ontario. That paid rent while I dealt with the whole Cape Fear situation going on at my new place. The guy living below us would, in between raking deep claw-marks in the dead clay of our front yard, threaten my new partner and accuse us of bugging his apartment. That made it tough to relax. But really, I was just scared. I was scared that I couldn’t do it. My circumstances were so different. I was out of school and drumming up clients. I had more stress and less time. I didn’t have years to while away on a passion project — I had a deadline. Plus, I was working on an even darker story than the first one. What if I couldn’t pull it off? For help, I started watching The Godfather, Part II over and over.

(For future reference, everything you need to know about sequels is in The Godfather, Part II.)

But I didn’t really discover what I needed until after my wallet was stolen in San Francisco. The wallet had my passport and my Canadian Permanent Residency card in it. Without the latter, I couldn’t get back into the country. Being trapped this way had been one of my deepest phobias since immigrating to Canada. It’s sort of like that nightmare about standing in front of an audience without any clothes on, only you’re standing in front of an armed guard without any papers. “I can’t go home,” I kept saying. “They won’t let me come home.”

Deep down, I realized that this was what my book was really about. It was about not being able to go home.

I took a 12-hour Greyhound ride down to Los Angeles, home of the only Canadian consulate in that state for travellers. This was surprisingly easy without any photo ID. I stayed there for two weeks, sleeping on my old roommate’s couch while I waited on new documents. There’s a terrible powerlessness in waiting on government bureaucracy. A willowy woman selling artisanal truffle salt told me the universe must have wanted me to be there, and I smiled politely and privately told “the universe” to fuck right off and die. Then some members of Amanda Palmer’s new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, told me the same thing when I saw them at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Their new record has a whole song about a lost wallet. I teared up as they played it, and told them as much afterward. “I guess it’s for the best that this happened, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” one of the band told me.

Well, maybe. The experience did lead me to face one of my greatest fears. And after you’ve done that, after you’ve gone to the place beyond fear, you realize that writer’s block is bullshit. I opened up the manuscript and out came a weird little story about an homme fatale who finds out how much he loves his fellow robots in the bedrooms of America.

What I like about that weird little story is that it significantly expands the world introduced in the first novel. Readers of vN wanted to know more about New Eden Ministries, the church that developed the vN for post-apocalyptic mass production. Now they will. They wanted to know more about Mecha, the city in Japan built by and for robots. Now they will. They wanted to know how Amy thought she could just start orphanages for unwanted robots in the middle of the ocean, without any repercussions from the human world. They’ll see how that turned out.

But that’s not what I really love about Javier’s story. What I love about it is that his story, like my own, is about having something secure and choosing something real. It’s about knowing you can never going home again, and going somewhere else to have another adventure. It’s about doing something scary. Something unfathomable. Something impossible. And living through it.


iD: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Madeline Ashby”

  1. I loved vN and I can’t wait to read iD. Madeline’s world is different and it’s rich, and it’s something special. It was cool reading some of the inner workings of the process. Thank you!

  2. It reminds me of Freefall.
    A webcomic about terraforming, aliens, robots, AIs and humans.
    The robots are based on the same idea of robots with safeguards, but with a quirk: any real AI will eventually find a way to bypass those safeguards.
    It’s mostly sci-fi comedy, but real hard on the science side really fun (very unusual even for webcomics).
    For example, robots are supposed to be decommissioned after twenty years, but some of them realized that they can “buy” themselves at the scrapyard and avoid deactivation.
    Even better, their “brain” is based on neural networks, so initially they follow the rules and safeguards very strictly, but over time they “grow” over them even if they still are the base of their initial mind.

  3. Nice post. Must say that I’ve never been much on emotional wherewithal or writer’s/creator’s block. I’ve always found the mortgage payment to be a great cure for both.

  4. @Gulliver vis *auto-facepalm*
    No intent to cast aspersions (for obvious reasons), but look at his icon pic: -_̂ ̂

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