Property is problematic. What can be owned and who can own it? Ownership can be onerous, which is to say a responsibility, or it can be empowering, an exemption from the obligation to care. With Autonomous, science journalist Annalee Newitz uses the science fiction novel in an exciting, emotionally engaging exploration of the edges of our economy. Pulse-pounding adventure proves to be the perfect instrument for examining the wreckage left after technology steamrollers over philosophy.
Newitz sets her story some 125 years into the future, in a world that is recognizably ours. Jack is a gene-splicing pharma pirate, a young woman who replicates patented life-saving and -extending therapies, bootlegging them so the poor can get a leg up. Paladin is a “human level” AI, indentured to the African Federation and working with Eliasz, a human, to bring Jack in. She’s pirated a prescription drug that unfortunately has terminal side effects. Ownership, moral and economic, are at war. Survival is optional.
Newitz expertly immerses readers in this world, wisely doling out bits of what we expect, what we hope and what we desperately want to find out with a plot that manages to be tense without ever getting into “artificial thriller” mode. We turn these pages because Newitz crafts characters who feel real. Everyone is shaded, with motivations that are both selfish and selfless. As Paladin and Eliasz make their way through the world seeking Jack, she seeks to undo what she has done. The thrill here is that we like both halves of this equation, and want everyone to succeed, which by definition should be impossible.
Newitz pulls off a lot of amazing feats in this novel. It’s a quick fun read that will make you think about a lot of current affairs by taking them out of today and resetting them in her future. Her characters, from the walk-ons to the leads are all superb and feel particularly real, especially Paladin, a masterpiece of neuroscientific pansexual speculation. The character arc of this robot, and others, including Med, a medical robot that appears human, are exciting and emotionally engaging incarnations of cutting-edge speculation about neuroscience and intelligence, artificial and “natural.”
Autonomous is bursting with ideas, and informed by a vision that’s not dystopian or utopian. It feels particularly real and agenda-free, almost slice-of-life some 125 years hence. In the here-and-now, Autonomous is a perfect example of all the great things that fiction can do. It’s as close to action-packed, emotionally charged science (fiction) journalism as you might hope to find. Explore Newitz’s world and you’ll return knowing a lot more about your own.
This is also the effect of talking with Annalee Newitz in person. Autonomous was the result of her work as a journalist, and as we sat down to talk about it, our conversation flowed from one mind-blowing bullet point to the next. We talked around the plot without talking too much about the plot, and she knows her science just as well as she knows her fiction.
You can jump into the world of your great-great-great-great grandchildren by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or declare your autonomy in the here-and now by clicking below and listening aloud wherever you are.