by Annalee Newitz
Autonomous is an interesting story that poses a lot of moral questions. It doesn’t really take sides; both the pharmaceutical pirate and the agents tracking her down are painted in sympathetic ways, as if we’re meant to like them all. We see why Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate; medicine is only available to those rich enough to pay for it, so the poor stay poor and sick and short-lived. She wants to change that. She reverse-engineers drugs, manufactures them, and distributes them to the needy through her associates.
Meanwhile, Eliasz is a conflicted military agent who is sexually attracted to robots. Or at least to his partner, Paladin, though a flashback shows what might have been the start of his attraction to robots. Paladin is probably the single most interesting character in the entire book, as she muses on the nature of being indentured, and searches through her memories and the internet for information about her situation.
The book does have LGBT content – Jack is bisexual, and Eliasz is – robosexual? Is that a thing? Paladin could be called nonbinary or trans; she repeatedly mentions that gender isn’t a thing to robots, but because she’s a military robot, most people call her a he at the beginning of the book. She learns the brain inside her is female, and to make Eliasz more comfortable with his attraction, she decides to use female pronouns. Eliasz does use the F word to refer to himself being attracted to the robot at the beginning, when they were using male pronouns. This puzzles Paladin for a while, causing her to search the term and figure out what Eliasz meant by its use.
There’s a lot of complex world-building in this book that is barely brushed past. From the corporations who own patents covering everything, to the system of indenture that covers humans as well as robots, to the bio-domes that cover cities (but it’s livable outside the biodomes, so why are they needed?), to the new federations that cover continents that used to be divided into several countries – there’s a LOT going on. And there’s not just robots, but also some pretty advanced cybernetics implanted in humans as well as an everpresent network of data that can be tapped into with implants that everyone has.
Ultimately, for as complex as the world is, and cohesive as the plot is, I’m left wondering who, if anyone, was in the right in this story. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be happy with the ending or not. I’ve seen other reviews saying Neuromancer was a way better book in a similar vein, and I actually have copy of that waiting to be read. So we’ll see.
From the cover of Autonomous:
When anything can be owned, how can we be free?
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.