Autonomous: Is anyone truly autonomous?

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Autonomous by Annalee Newitz science fiction book reviewsAutonomous by Annalee Newitz fantasy book reviewsAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

2017’s Autonomous is Annalee Newitz’s first novel. Autonomous questions what life would be like in a world with AI, a world where everything is property, whether it’s physical, molecular or intellectual.

Pirate Jack (Judith) Chen is a biologist who started off fighting the restrictive patent system that keeps vital medicines away from people who need them, guaranteeing instead corporate profits. Disillusioned, she has become a pharma-pirate. To her horror, a productivity drug she reverse-engineered is causing deaths. Jack is eager to get her knockoff version off the market, but then she learns that there is no error in her pirated drug; the official drug has the same effects and that news is being suppressed.

Meanwhile two operatives from the International Property Coalition, military-grade bot Paladin and human Eliasz, are on her trail. Paladin is an AI, and currently indentured to the IPC. Once Paladin has served ten years (that time frame seems elastic), the bot will be given autonomy. The acknowledgment of AIs as beings with rights, but also beings that were created by a corporation, led to an indenture system that has now expanded to include indentured humans. As Autonomous progresses, we see Paladin and the indentured human Threezed as two examples of the indenture system.

Annalee Newitz

I loved Newitz’s visuals here, from Jack’s submarine, to the descriptions of parts of Canada, to the exteriors and interiors of the tech-city of Casablanca. I loved the various bots and the evolution of the bot society. Paladin is truly a non-human person, and as the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin develops, then heats up, a lot of the story’s drama comes from Eliasz’s increasingly outlandish rationalizations as he attempts to assign Paladin a human gender. Eliasz, raised in a culture that holds rigid sex roles, denies his attraction to his bot partner at first, because a strong military bot must be “male.” Later, though, Eliasz is given information that allows him to see Paladin as “female.” Paladin, of course, cannot be squeezed into human sex categories. Paladin is a different life form. While this is not the “plot” of Autonomous, it was the most interesting part of the story for me. Newitz manages a tone that is amusing and deeply sad, as Paladin researches words like “faggot” to gain better understanding of Eliasz’s thought processes. A scene where Eliasz and Paladin go to a recreational shooting range, and the game turns physical, is revealing, sexy and disturbing — an example of perfectly controlled tone.

But it’s not all angst or fun-and-games for those two as they hunt down Jack. Paladin and Eliasz have no problem killing dozens of people and torturing others in their search. Jack, meanwhile, keeps finding and losing allies, but Threezed and an autonomous bot who identifies as female and calls herself Med turn out to be loyal friends and helpers.

The definition of “autonomy” for the bots is an interesting one; basically, a bot is given an “autonomy key” that allows the bot to access all its programming, which it has not been able to do before. I liked this. I couldn’t help thinking of advertising… how humans are affected by it, but how we think, anyway, that we have access to our own programming, so at least we know when we are being manipulated and we can take steps to neutralize the manipulation. Theoretically, anyway. Paladin discovers some programming that may explain the feelings Paladin has for Eliasz, and the bot is left to decide whether those “feelings” are real.

The ending is open-ended. Highlight here to see spoilers: While the deaths from the productivity drug are stopped, the pharma corporation behind it faces no consequences. In one sense, Eliasz and Paladin achieve their goal, but Jack’s mission has not ended. The book ends with a now-autonomous Paladin and Eliasz together, even as Paladin is beginning to have doubts about the relationship. After all, being given the freedom to make bad choices is one part of true autonomy, isn’t it?

I enjoyed Autonomous, particularly the questions about AI and about a world where everything is commodified. While not particularly fast-paced, the book does not drag, and even if scenes are leisurely, they are interesting and filled with lovely details of this world. With the quirky characters, striking visuals, and plenty of scene of things blowing up, this would make a great episodic television. Neflix, Amazon, are you listening?

Published in September 2017. “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. When anything can be owned, how can we be free? Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned? At the Publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve been hearing about so many AI books lately – is this a new trend or was I blind to them before? Either way – this looks like an interesting book. Thanks for the review!

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