Author: Annalee Newitz
Publication Date: September 19, 2017
“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, a pharmaceutical Robin Hood traversing the world in a submarine, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack leaves a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, repeating job tasks until they become insane.
Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his partner Paladin, a young indentured robot. As they race to stop information about the hacked drugs at their source, they form an uncommonly close relationship that neither of them fully understands, and Paladin begins to question their connection- and a society that profits from indentured robots.”
It’s been days since I read the last words of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, and I’m still processing, putting all the tiny, intricate pieces together. Newitz, who is the “tech-culture editor at Ars Technica and the founding editor of io9” writes masterfully about the near-future, a world where our dependence on drugs, both recreational and medicinal, has resulted in a world dominated by mega-conglomerate pharmaceutical companies.
With only the rich able to afford heavily controlled patented meds, the poor are left with no access to pharmaceuticals that do everything from cure disease, prolong longevity, and increase focus and productivity. Unable to compete for better-paying higher level positions, the poor are often forced to take drastic measures. Anyone unable to afford a franchise (a “basic citizen package” which allows an individual to live and work in a particular economic zone), is forced to sell themselves or possibly their children into slavery as an indentured servant. The alternative is to purchase pirated black-market scripts.
The book opens with Jack Chen’s discovery that she has reverse-engineered a new but deadly productivity drug and must now do what she can to stop the growing death toll. At the same time, she is being hunted down by two agents (one human, one bio-bot) from the IPC, the International Property Coalition. With dual protagonists, alternating chapters focus on Jack and Paladin, and while Jack is a fearsome heroine, it is Paladin, the military biobot, that makes this book so memorable.
As Paladin tries to gather human intel (HUMINT) in order to track down Jack’s location, the bot is left with difficult questions. Newitz writes “He was a user of his own consciousness, but he did not have owner privileges. As a result, Paladin felt many things without knowing why.” I only wish Eliasz, Paladin’s partner, had been explored on as deep a level. For the most part, Eliasz seemed flat and one-dimensional, compared to more fleshed out minor characters like Threezed, Med, and Frankie.
But where Newitz is strongest is in her creation of this world, where the details and fibers are intricately woven and expertly crafted. Autonomous is a multi-faceted and fast paced novel with deep implications. More tech-heavy than my usual selections, it is a fascinating read which explores a multitude of topics including economic inequality, the free culture movement, gender identity, sexuality and domination, and personal freedom. I was submerged as deeply as Jack’s submarine in the icy waters of the Arctic Sea.
The Bottom Line:
A multi-faceted and fast paced novel with deep implications.