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Autonomous by Annalee NewitzFour stars
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I’ve never been someone who has a problem with the concept of ownership. Especially for creatives. If you write a novel or record an album or produce a work of art, you should be the one entitled to earn money from that work, and to determine how that work is presented to the public. I don’t even have a problem with proprietary technologies. It costs money, a great deal of it, to produce the things we take for granted every day. But I also support those who are into a sharing culture, producing open source work that others may freely expand upon and contribute to. As long as free choice — autonomy — is what backs decision making, and no one is being exploited in the process.

That last detail is where problems in the real world tend to arise. When corporate culture reaches the point where executives can underpay their staffs, screw over their customers, scuttle their own companies, and bail out with a multi-million dollar golden parachute, there’s simply no way the system can sustain itself for very long. The long-term consequences of trying to sustain such a system form one of the central themes of Autonomous, one of the most striking science fiction debuts to come down the pike since the heady days of Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Along with books like Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and Malka Older’s Infomocracy, it’s part of a wave of near-future science fiction aggressively challenging our notions about economic and social systems.

Autonomous deals with ideas of ownership, personhood and identity in a world that sees people as commodities in a way I’ve never quite seen done in SF. Certainly some of its plot complications — such as how technology is impacting sexuality and relationships — aren’t in and of themselves new. (SF has nothing but an overabundance of robot sex.) But the way Annalee Newitz explores it here feels fresh in context.

It’s the mid-22nd century and governments as we know them no longer exist. The world is now divided into economic zones. Patent laws are enforced, often violently, by agents of the International Property Coalition, particularly those laws governing the widely available array of pharmaceuticals that can do nearly anything, but remain mostly inaccessible to the poor. Intelligent, self-aware robots are a thing, and must spend the first ten years of their existence indentured to pay off the cost of their development. Along the way, it occurred to those in power that people could just as easily be indentured too. In this world a person’s entire existence is valued only in terms of their economic contribution. It is, to be perfectly blunt, not too far from how our world works today.

Janice Chen, aka Jack, gave up a promising science career to join an underground freeculture movement that eventually led to life as a pharma pirate. She now makes bootleg medicine for those in need. When she gets her hands on a new work-enhancement drug called Zacuity — it makes you highly focused on your job, giving you a massive dopamine high when you complete tasks — and reverse engineers a pirate version of it, she finds the drug works much too well. Users become powerfully addicted, literally working themselves to death (and sometimes causing collateral deaths). At first Jack fears she bungled her reverse engineering, but evidence indicates that Zaxy, the company behind the real Zacuity, did in fact design it to be hyper-addictive in blatant violation of the law.

So the race is on to find proof positive of Zaxy’s malfeasance and get the information to the public before the IPC swoops in. And swooping they are, with human agent Eliasz and his robot partner Paladin hot on Jack’s trail.

At its core a thriller, Autonomous explores the themes of its title in two ways. First, there is the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin.

Eliasz is dealing with some serious repressed sexual issues, and they’re manifesting in a growing and powerful attraction to Paladin (which is interesting in more ways than one, particularly because Paladin’s form factor isn’t strictly humanoid). Paladin’s response is generally favorable, but this has a lot to do with the fact that loyalty algorithms are parked right smack dab in the middle of her system software. Also, Paladin is still indentured, meaning that anything regarding Eliasz that feels like a free choice to Paladin probably isn’t. This includes adopting female pronouns, even though Paladin is genderless, mainly because Eliasz is more comfortable that way. But Eliasz never regards Paladin as anything less than human (probably because Paladin does have a human brain installed in her chest cavity that helps with facial recognition) and never forces himself on her either. The result is a subplot that isn’t just another string of robot-luv clichés, but one that scrutinizes the moral ambiguity of power imbalances in relationships, even those where it seems like no one’s will is being imposed on the other.

Second, there’s the Zacuity drug itself. Zaxy may be flagrantly breaking the law in how they designed the drug. But in an economic system that relies on indentured workers, a drug that makes them addicted to work can only benefit the system, regardless of what damaging effects it may have on individuals. It’s plain to see that while the IPC is absolutely determined to run Jack down for her act of piracy, they couldn’t care less about any criminality on the part of Zaxy. And it’s only due to public backlash and falling stock prices that Zaxy is likely to face even the most minor consequences for the harm they caused. If anything in this story hits close to home, it’s got to be that. The rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

There are so many more unusual, fine details that bring this story vividly to life. For instance, I liked that so much of the story unfolds in the extreme Canadian north. It may well be the only science fiction novel with scenes set in towns like Inuvik and Iqaluit (though it would have been nice to see some prominent indigenous characters). It was also good to see Jack as an older protagonist. We don’t see too many fifty-ish heroines. Though flashbacks are usually a lazy gimmick, Newitz uses them here effectively, to show the moments that helped influence the person Jack would become. As an older hero, Jack is portrayed as someone who hasn’t lost her idealism, but who’s also able to temper it with a sense of moral responsibility and inner reflection that just wouldn’t be available to a hero who’s 17. Finally, Newitz creates a sense of immersion that gives Autonomous a rich and tactile future that feels as real and lived in as anything I’ve read in the genre. There’s a level of detail here that evokes the imagery of Katsuhiro Otomo.

Up until now, Annalee Newitz may have been best known as a founder of io9 and a biotechnology journalist, but Autonomous proves that, as an SF writer, she’s got the goods. The book is a skillfully crafted machine with both brains and a heart.