io9 co-founder and current Ars Technica Tech Culture Editor Annalee Newitz has broken into science fiction with a stirring, vital tale of robots, pirates, and what it means to be free in a future still shaped by capitalist forces.
Newitz’s science fiction debut, Autonomous, imagines our world as it might be in the year 2144. This is a world divided not into nation-states, but economic zones. This is a world where pharmaceutical companies have immense power, and anything — or anyone — can be owned.
“Now we know there has been no one, great disaster—only the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property,” one Autonomous character writes in a “Freeculture” essay. This is a world, like our own, where the value of property often trumps the value of people — even when people are the property.
The reader enters and explores this near-future world through two main characters: Jack Chen is a pharmaceutical pirate, a former academic who reverse-engineers patented drugs and distributes them where they are most needed. When she releases a new worker drug, Zacuity, onto the black market before its corporate launch by Zaxy, it starts killing people. Jack races to develop a drug therapy for Zacuity and expose Zaxy’s corporate criminality before the highly-addictive productivity drug can claim more lives.
Jack’s mission is complicated by Autonomous‘ second protagonist: Paladin, a military-grade robot owned by the International Property Coalition (IPC). While Paladin may have a mature human brain amongst his parts, he/she/they is new to existence. Paladin is programmed to fulfill his mission, hunting down and executing Jack and other patent-violating pirates without trial or mercy, but he is also slowly learning who he is.
Paladin is paired with a human agent, Eliasz. As the two spy, fight, interrogate, and kill in their mission to find Jack, Paladin becomes increasingly intrigued by their friendship and growing attraction to one another. Are these feelings real or are they part of his programming? Is Eliasz attracted to Paladin or is he attracted to some anthropomorphized version of Paladin? Will the answers to those questions make a difference?
Jack’s decisions may be the ones that largely drive the story, the actions that everyone else is affected by and reacting to, but it is in Paladin’s story where this book sings. Paladin is violent and cutthroat, a result of his programming, yet he is innocent and curious, too — about the world, himself, and Eliasz. Paladin is forever asking the question “What, if anything, does your body mean when it comes to your identity?” For me, Paladin’s exploration of this question is the most fascinating part of Autonomous.
Of course, Jack and Paladin’s storylines are made stronger by their parallel. This is partly because Autonomous is a novel that actively eschews assigning “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy” designations to its players. Powerful, shadowy institutional forces like Zaxy and the IPC are reprehensible, but they exist only at the periphery of the narrative. In the main action of this story, there are no clear cut bad guys. Only the things we are or feel forced to do because of the world we live in.
“She wasn’t sure which motivation made better fuel for innovation: naïve but ethical beliefs or the need to survive,” Jack muses at one point in the narrative. By removing a rigid moral framework from the narrative and by putting these many characters’ motives and decisions into context, Newitz leaves more space to think critically about the larger forces in society: institutions, corporations, the “free” market and the boundaries they all tend to impose on people, places, and freedom.
Autonomous takes a while to hit its stride. I dog-eared my first page on 111. But, once I started dog-earing, I couldn’t stop. This book takes you from the icy waters of the Arctic to the the free labs of Saskatoon to the hacker-frequented teahouses of Casablanca, but it’s most fascinating descriptions happen in the most intimate of spaces: In the Livejournal-esque ramblings of Memeland. In the whispers and caresses of a bed. And in the confused, vital, free functions of our own programming — i.e. our identity.
Some of the best scenes in this book include no human characters, instead imagining what conversations between two intelligent bots might look like. What do they talk about when humans aren’t actively listening? As is the case with conversations between humans, the answer to this question varies from bot to bot, and from situation to situation.
Newitz casts a wide, diverse net when it comes to depicting relationships in this world. There are relationships between bots and bots, bots and humans, and humans and humans. No two are the same, and all shine with explorations of identity, autonomy, and how the two intersect.
For a writer chiefly known for non-fiction writing, Newitz is as good at crafting these compelling character dynamics as she is at building the science and technology of this world. Perhaps because she understands that the two are intertwined. When talking about science fiction, there can sometimes be a lazy dichotomy formed around the idea that a book can either be hard science fiction or it can be interested in softer, interpersonal ideas.
Hard or soft. Exterior or interior. Masculine or feminine. Like its robot protagonist, Autonomous works best when these perceived dichotomies collapse and work together to become something more complicated, messy, and honest.
Autonomous is a fairly brutal book at points, but it’s never hopeless. It explores the limits of idealism and good intentions, but it also gives us Jack, a character who has chosen a difficult, dangerous life of Robin Hood-esque subversion over a relatively easy life of above-board academia.
This may be a world, like our own, where the value of property often trumps the value of people — even when people are the property. But, like our own world, there are people in Autonomous who fight for a better, more honest reality, within the larger world and within themselves.