A month ago or so, I read Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, and it was one of the best scifi commentaries on gender and identity politics I'd read for years.
vN is just as complex and just as readable, but very, very different. The vNs of the title are von Neumann machines, 'self-replicating humanoids' whose design was funded by evangelical Christians so they could act as helpmeets to the survivors of the rapture. They're programmed with a failsafe to force them to obey humans. They make inhumanly perfect babies and they age as fast as they eat. They live in the uncanny valley, and they live in a culture hyper-aware of it.
We follow the story of Amy, the vN daughter of a mixed couple, whose human father has tried (with limited success) to raise her as if she were human. This doesn't last long: Amy's complex family history comes back to drive her into a plot that does justice to all the strange and difficult consequences of a culture that's created a sentient class of servants.
There's the morality of the failsafe that disables vN in the presence of suffering humans, and that's a concept familiar from Asimov et al, but Ashby has a lot to say on objectification. Her vN are an unusual concept in one way - they can reproduce, make new iterations of themselves. In many other ways, though they remind me of sexy fembots from all over fiction and media. There are many bots out there with Amy's face: it's a commodity, with more of her series out there up for sale and versions of her skin and outfits available to buy for your character in a video game.
This merchandising, this literal objectification, brings to mind a whole bunch of science fiction anime to me. Some of them are alluded to fondly. For others, like the key cyberpunk series Ghost in the Shell, I could see a lot of summaries but I thought of vN as more a rebuttal than a tribute. In Ghost in the Shell, perfectly feminine androids exist as servants and secretaries and sex workers all over the background of the stories: they very rarely get a role in the plot except as victims. vN feels a lot like their story.
I don't want to leave you with the impression it's all grim. There was a fair bit of sexual ickiness - a lot of harrassment, and the de facto rape of the main character's male partner - but the story doesn't linger on the details. It says enough to make it clear it's set in a society that is exploitative and nasty, then it moves on to drama and adventure and the conversations Amy has with the ghost of her grandmother on a spare logical partition in her brain (she's plotting a bloody revolution). It's a gleefully inventive book, and it's a much needed counterpart to all the many scifi stories out there that don't think twice about writing sexy fembots into the background of their settings without giving them any kind of inner life. I'll definitely be coming back to read it again.