Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
Publisher: Tor Books (Macmillian)
Release Date: September 19, 2017
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
“Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet.”—Neal Stephenson
“Something genuinely and thrillingly new in the naturalistic, subjective, paradoxically humanistic but non-anthropomorphic depiction of bot-POV—and all in the service of vivid, solid storytelling.”—William Gibson
When anything can be owned, how can we be free
Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.
Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.
And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
Content Warning for:
Slavery, Dubious Consent, Rape, Child Abuse, Abuse of Power
Drug Abuse, Addiction, Forced Drug Injection
Violence, Murder, Torture
This review contains spoilers.
I have quite the contradicting thoughts on this book.
The premise is very interesting and innovative. The main theme of freedom versus ownership is comprehensibly written into the world with its patents and ownership (of medicine) as well as into the characters who are in different stages of freedom and ownership themselves. However, even as an autonomous person freedom is not a given. The questions the author raises in her book are important and thoroughly depicted. Consent is highly doubted and is actually more often lacking or dubious. The problem is that this life has become normal, thus leaving people unaware of the concept of consent in a way. What about free will if a human slave doesn’t even want to say no? Can a robot with the programming to please their owners make decisions in their own interest or even develop genuine feelings, even if they think they are?
While for the contemporary reader these are usually easily answered questions, the book shows a not so far away future in which the people living in it can’t. What makes this setting even more horrible is the matter of fact description of it. The author does not shock with future horrors and maliciousness but with the normalcy of it. You have to pay attention and keep steadfast in your no, your conviction that this is wrong.
I have to say that I am not convinced of the supposed freedom and autonomy that the protagonists find in this book. Moreover, I wonder whether writing this kind of happy ending is doing more harm than good, to be honest. The story would have been better as an even bleaker dystopia that shows the full extent of the problem and not trying to sell us some half-arsed solution.
I have also pressing concerns regarding the queer representation. Firstly, not all of it feels natural but more like an addition, a feature that is supposed and wanted to be there but not really integrated, which makes it a bit weird and educating and, honestly, not very appealing.
The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is deeply problematic. Paladin is an AI and has no gender, but humans do not understand that and assign them a gender that fits into their stereotypes of gender roles. However, when Eliasz, for some to me totally unexplainable reasons, develops feelings for Paladin, he will not follow up on his attraction because Paladin was assigned a male identity and Eliasz does not want to be “a faggot”. Now. To make it short, Paladin finds out that their human brain once belonged to a woman, which makes Eliasz incredibly happy, and since Paladin as a robot doesn’t care about gender, he just matter of factly becomes a woman to please Eliasz, all the while letting him believe that gender matters to them as well. See, not only is this homophobic and transphobic (sure, let’s just adapt our gender to satisfy our lover) in my book, it doesn’t even make sense to me because if I imagine a world a hundred years from now, the future bigots would not (primarily) care about gender and same-sex issues. This would definitely come after the concerns about a relationship between a human and a robot, which would, of course, be unnatural and what have you. Funnily, that is no problem here. Add to this Paladin’s lack of consent and autonomy, their relationship is completely dysfunctional, and I don’t buy the half-hearted attempts to convince me of the truth of Paladin’s feeling because Paladin clearly is not a reliable source and I just can’t take their word for it.
Actually, I can’t believe I am saying that, but the book would have been better without any queer representation at all. It’s not like the premise didn’t have enough going for it.
Then, and these following points are actually the main reason for my low rating, the plot development is way too slow and there are too many details bogging down the reading flow. I could have done without Jack’s chapters from the past, for example. But they are only one element of what this book’s problem is because the plot and the characters and their reactions and… Everything is entirely spelled out for the reader. We get every point of view of every time, so there is nothing left for us to figure out and engage in. There is no suspense because throughout the whole book we accompany both the pursuers and their quarry. Even the message of the book is explained to us several times. My dear reader, if you still didn’t get it, here, I have this article that person X once wrote. *sigh*
I love the premise and the scientific part of this book is awesome and really profound and… Man, the execution is just so boring and belittling and problematic.
Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from MIT, and has written for Popular Science, Wired, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She also founded the science fiction website io9 and served as Editor-in-Chief from 2008–2015, and subsequently edited Gizmodo. As of 2016, she is Tech Culture Editor at the technology site Ars Technica. Her books include Pretend We’re Dead and Autonomous.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.