Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Autonomous is a cyberpunk/biopunk novel about Jack, a pirate who steals patented medicine/drugs and recreates them to sell cheaply to those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. However, the last drug she recreated, used to artificially boost enthusiasm for work, turns out to be highly addictive. Soon there’s a minor epidemic of people dying from enthusiastically reshuffling train schedules, or painting their home, or doing homework without pause while ignoring basic needs like water. Jack has to fix her mistake before more people die, while also avoiding the two agents who are working for the big corporations to bring her to justice. Overall, I felt like this book had some interesting concepts that were not necessarily executed great.

The idea of a Canadian pirate who floats around in a submarine, recreating medical drugs and acting as a kind-of Robin Hood, is just immensely appealing to me. In general, the book raises some interesting questions about how research and medicine in particular may develop in the future. Ensuring that everyone gets fair health care is already difficult, and it can only grow more so if drugs get even better while inequality gets even worse. How can poorer people even compete if only richer ones can greatly prolong their life, repair wounds without a scar, or have access to the best ability-enhancing drugs? People fighting such an unjust system from outside the law is easy to cheer on.

I also found the world vibrant and fun to visualise. The book is set a little over a century in the future, so most elements are not completely foreign, just pushed to the logical limit from what we have now. Body modification is common — including things like moving tattoos or completely useless but badass wings. Face-to-face conversations involve sending information to each other over the internet almost as much as speaking out loud. A particular highlight is a city district where autonomous robots live, where buildings are modified to fit all the different bot sizes, and there’s also tons of data augmentation “central to bot architecture”.

On the other hand, some parts of the world felt off to me. Human slavery is back. The idea is that if people can own sentient robots, why not also own sentient humans? Maybe I’m naive, but that’s difficult for me to swallow, just a century down the line. Abominable work contracts, yes; the richest countries happily relying on slave labour somewhere far away, hell that happens now. But actually straight-up governmentally-sanctioned slavery in Poland or the US is a bit odd. On a very different note, all the characters’ pop culture references seem to be our pop culture references. People nowadays still mention Dickens or Charlie Chaplin, but also, you know, newer stuff. It always jumps out to me when future characters don’t.

Putting aside the likelihood of Polish slaves in the 2110s, human slavery is mainly there to draw a thematic parallel to robot slavery. In particular, Autonomous explores issues of consent and conditioning. One of the agents chasing Jack is the military robot Paladin, who begins to develop feelings for his partner. Similarly, early in the book Jack accidentally rescues a human slave who offers to repay her with sex. How “real” are these feelings? Is it possible for such unequal relationships to be consensual? The questions raised are interesting; I just found the conclusions unconvincing and sometimes just plain weird. [Blanket content warning for rape and dubious consent.]

Finally and probably my biggest issue: the main characters are just… not that fun/interesting/exciting to follow. In theory, a Canadian pirate and a robot who falls in love should be amazing. But maybe because of the consent issues mentioned above, I felt put off by them instead. I did like the minor characters more. In particular, Jack has two friends, one who is much more involved with radical anti-corporation movements and one who works on providing cheap drugs legally. Similarly, there’s glimpses of robots who want to work peacefully within the system and robots who aren’t interested in any kind of cooperation with humans. Maybe that was also my issue. Following Jack and Paladin might provide a more balanced view. But it ends up feeling like wishy-washiness and is not as intriguing as genuine belief and commitment in either direction.

Altogether, Autonomous offered a lot of good ideas that in my opinion weren’t resolved satisfactorily. But if these questions are interesting to you, I do recommend you check out the book — maybe you’ll find the proposed answers more convincing.

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