Book Review of Annalee Newitz’s Novel: “Autonomous”

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Cover art for the novel Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

“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

“This book is a cyborg. Partly, it’s a novel of ideas, about property, the very concept of it, and how our laws and systems about property shape class structure and society, as well as notions of identity, the self, bodies, autonomy at the most fundamental levels, all woven seamlessly into a dense mesh of impressive complexity. Don’t let that fool you though. Because wrapped around that is the most badass exoskeleton–a thrilling and sexy story about pirates and their adventures. Newitz has fused these two layers together at the micro- and macro-levels with insight and wit and verbal flair. Moves fast, with frightening intelligence.” ―Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

“Annalee Newitz has conjured the rarest, most exciting thing: a future that’s truly new … a terrific novel and a tremendous vision.” ―Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“Holy hell. Autonomous is remarkable.” ―Lauren Beukes, bestselling author of Broken Monsters

“Everything you’d hope for from the co-founder of io9 … Combines the gonzo, corporatized future of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with the weird sex of Charlie Stross’s Saturn’s Children; throws in an action hero that’s a biohacker version of Bruce Sterling’s Leggy Starlitz, and then saturates it with decades of deep involvement with free software hackers, pop culture, and the leading edge of human sexuality.” ―Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling author of Walkaway.

“Wait! What?” -Me

Oh, here’s part of Amazon’s blurb on the book on Autonomous:

Their first novel, Autonomous, won the Lambda Literary Award and was nominated for the Nebula and Locus Awards.

My reaction to this novel and the glowing reviews it has received, more or less mirrors my response to N.K. Jemisin‘s award winning tome The Fifth Season.

In other words, how can Ms. Newitz’s first book receive such incredibly critical acclaim, and still read more like a socialist manifesto written by an old school Berkeley radical?

Actually, it wasn’t that bad, although I had to get about 70% though the digital book before I started to appreciate Newitz’s writing style.

The good things first. From the author’s about page:

I’m currently a freelance science journalist, a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, and a columnist at New Scientist. I’m the co-host, with Charlie Jane Anders, of the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Previously, I founded io9, and was the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo.

My nonfiction has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, The Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, 2600, New Scientist, Technology Review, Popular Science, Discover and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I’m the co-editor of the essay collection She’s Such A Geek (Seal Press), and author of Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke University Press).

Much earlier, I was a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lecturer in American Studies at UC Berkeley. I was the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, and have a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley.

Yes, suffice it to say, they possess a highly impressive set of credentials and accomplishments (Newitz changed personal pronouns from “she” to “they” in 2019).

I took copious notes while reading, but I don’t want to re-hash every single point I noticed.

The author’s background as a science writer was definitely applied, although I still am dubious regarding the effectiveness of being able to keep a human brain alive “under glass,” so to speak. And in spite of a variety of sources that say it’s perfectly safe to live next door to a large solar farm, I question whether or not putting your house smack in the center of one would completely avoid any electromagnetic radiation hazards long term.

Themes and biases (yes, we all have them). You can’t read two paragraphs without tripping over themes and biases. Property vs. free stuff, specifically medication. Yes, I don’t think meds like insulin should cost and arm and a leg when without it, people will die. The penalty for being poor or not having good medical insurance shouldn’t be death.

I even believe that medications to treat glaucoma so folks don’t go blind should be affordable.

However, the author’s pirate Jack (Judith Chen) was reverse-engineering and then distributing what amounts to a performance enhancement drug, one that possessed horribly addictive side effects, as it turns out (though she didn’t know it at the time). The justification for pirating this medication was that without said-drug, people couldn’t compete adequately in the work world, thus, it was as necessary as insulin. Down with intellectual property (IP).

My first thought was to reflect back upon this notice near the book’s beginning:

Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher…

Seems not all property rights are bad.

In the novel’s future world, robots are, by their nature, created and owned beings, but they can earn their way to autonomy, thanks to the rights they gained legally as (artificially) intelligent entities. Of, course, those rights resulted in human beings, who could not buy the equivalent of citizenship rights, becoming indentured. Both people and machines could be property, which is just as bad (apparently) as medicines being intellectual property owned by their creators.

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Promotional photo of Annalee Newitz – Credit: Sarah Deragon

The distinction between machines and people was also blurred in that they could both be sexual beings. The federal agent Eliasz ended up becoming first infatuated, and then head over heels in love with his robotic partner Paladin. Robots don’t have gender, even the humanoid biobots, though they can be made to superficially resemble male or female.

Somehow Paladin ended up with similar, if baffling, responses to Eliasz. Once the human finds that the human brain stored in the robot’s abdomen and used for facial recognition (not cognition, and certainly not identity or gender) originally came from a female, he jumped her metallic bones, having highly satisfying sex, even though the machine had absolutely no physical parts created for that purpose (and being a military-grade robot, was very “hardened”).

Jack’s quest, after she realizes that she’s unwittingly participated in the drug-related deaths of hundreds, isn’t to come clean about her role, but to launch a plot to take down the evil big pharma corporation behind the sinister scheme. With a former human slave, her previous lover and ex-radical anti-patient ally, now the head of a free lab, and a humanoid autonomous bot, she races against time to find the evidence needed to blow the lid off of this massive conspiracy.

She remains one step ahead of agents (and lovers) Eliasz and Paladin, who in pursuit of the pirate, end up torturing and murdering several of her conspirators.

A trail of bodies later, they catch up with Jack, who manages to escape with almost ridiculous ease with the aid of her two surviving friends. Jack goes into hiding after faking her death, and the authorities choose not to go after the accomplices. They do, however, cover up any responsibility the big pharma company had in deliberately making their performance enhancer heinously addictive.

Jack temporarily gives up pirating drugs for pirating algae farms, while Eliasz and Paladin leave crime fighting and move to Mars where a pair of star crossed (human-machine) lovers won’t stir up too much prejudice over a “mixed-relationship”.

Frankly, most, if not all of this “robots-as-analogs-for-human-slaves” territory has been covered previously, probably starting with Isaac Asimov’s group of “Three Laws” stories collected into the famous I, Robot anthology.

Yes, the author is a skilled writer (though I had a tough time liking any of her characters except maybe Paladin), and yes, she possesses a convincing ability to weave modern science in with the fictionalized future tech presented in her book, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t that good of a story. It certainly (in my opinion) was not so stellar as to have garnered such high praise (and no, not a landmark like Gibson’s “Neuromancer”).

It was a long, rambling lecture about property, slavery, sex, gender, and lots and lots of drug use. Nobody really wins, and the losers are counted among the dead. The evil drug company walks away sacrificing a gaggle of profit, and the world goes on spinning. The end.

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