Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Published: Tor (2017)
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell Memorial and Locus First Novel Awards

The Book:

“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?”

I picked up this book because of all the award attention, and also because the premise sounded like it would make an interesting story.  This is Annalee Newitz’s first novel.

My Thoughts:

The world of Autonomous is a future capitalist nightmare, extrapolated from current trends.  Corporations have far more power than they do now, so laws have shifted to accommodate what is best for them. For instance, patents are permanent and secret, so that pharmaceutical companies can continue to profit on drugs indefinitely.  The question of robotic AI rights vs. human rights is also settled in a way that prioritizes profits -- if robots can be considered human, then humans can also be considered commodities. It’s a pretty dark future, but not a fully unrecognizable one.  It also doesn’t seem completely hopeless, since we see people like Jack fighting against the status quo, even if she isn’t altogether noble.

I enjoyed what I saw of the world-building, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the characters, even though I often like reading about people with major flaws. Eliasz is a murderous homophobe, and, for all their initial naivete, Paladin seems to become similar.  Jack is the most objectively decent main character, but her black market drugs make her responsible for a lot of suffering. In addition, both Jack and Eliasz separately engage in sexual relationships that seem very exploitative, due to uncomfortable power dynamics. I think that part of my issue might have been that I did not feel like their character flaws were sufficiently acknowledged or addressed within the story. 

Even if they didn’t engage me emotionally, some of the characters were pretty fun to read about.  I enjoyed seeing Jack navigate her counterculture, and I especially liked Paladin’s character arc.  Paladin begins the story as a newborn robot AI, and we get to see them learn about the world and their place in it.  I enjoyed the idea of what a robotic AI perspective might be like, and it was interesting to see how their thoughts were affected by things like code and communication protocols.  There were also differences in the relative importance that humans and robots put on particular topics. For instance, gender is not something the robots care about, and they don’t have any natural instinct to value organic components over mechanical. I think Paladin’s arc is going to be the part of the story that sticks with me the strongest.

My Rating:3.5/5

Overall, Autonomous was an entertaining book, set in a corporate dystopia that I seriously hope we never reach in reality.  Though the world was bleak, it was also interesting, and I enjoyed the exploration of the perspective of a robotic AI.  The characters had some serious flaws, which I usually like, but in this case it made it difficult for me emotionally invest in the story.  Overall, I liked this book, and I would be interested in reading more from Newitz. It looks like her next book, The Future of Another Timeline, is coming out Sept. 24, 2019!

No comments:

Post a Comment