Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received this as a free e-book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The approval surprised me since when I first noticed it on their site they were only offering an excerpt, and I was thinking I hadn't made a request. Then three weeks after publication they let me know I could download it. Another reason for the surprise is the publisher is Tor, who had declined my request for Malka Older's Null States, apparently because this site doesn't get enough traffic, and/or I don't have enough followers on Twitter and Facebook. I was interested, but had not purchased it yet, so I wasn't going to turn them down.
This is the first novel from Annalee Newitz, co-founder of the io9.com blog site, and currently an editor at ArsTechnica.com. Autonomous is set in the year 2144, with flashbacks to 2119, and concerns robotics and bio-technology. This future is part dystopia, part capitalistic reinvention. Climate change has reshaped the world, most nation states have collapsed and been reformed into various coalitions, such as the Free Trade Zone and the African Federation, with corporations and strict property rights dictating the rule of law. The first character we meet is Judith "Jack" Chen, a patent-pirate who reverse engineers pharmaceutical products and distributes them to those who cannot afford the official, legal drugs. Most of her activities are in the Free Trade Zone, which I gathered ecompasses most of the former Canada, and possibly portions of the US. Earlier in her life Jack had worked with an underground group known as The Bilious Pills, and for a brief time had been imprisoned for intellectual property theft. After getting out of jail she worked at a free lab in Saskatoon with a former Bilious Pills cohort, then moved to Casablanca for a stint at another lab. In "present day" her base of operations is Iqaluit on Baffin Island, and she uses a private submarine to navigate the Northwest Passages, as well as a truck protected with anti-electronic detection devices for overland travel.
The main plot revolves around the drug Zacuity, which Jack later learns has serious side effects. She acknowledges her guilt for distributing her pirated version, but wants to develop a counter-agent, as well as bring attention to the fact that Zaxy, the company responsible for the drug, is complicit for hiding those side effects during its development. Eliasz, a security agent for IPC (International Property Coalition), and his robotic partner Paladin, are in pursuit of Jack. A major sub-plot is how robotics has transformed all aspects of society, including how humans have incorporated electronic prostheses and implants for enhanced sensory functions. Most robots are indentured to a company, government, or an individual, but can earn autonomous rights after a certain period of time, or in some cases are "born" autonomous. As robots gained rights, but were also subject to indenture, the policy of indentured servitude was also applied to humans if they, or their parents, could not afford a personal franchise. Combine this with the fact some humans are so enhanced with robotic accoutrements, and some robots are extremely life-like, it's easy for Jack to mistake Threezed for a robot and Medea for human. Threezed doesn't know his real name, he just uses the last two digits (30) of his indenture number. His parents sold him as a child, and he's been bought and sold many times since, sometimes as a worker, but also as a subserviant sexual partner. Medea (Med for short) has always been autonomous, having been raised by human scientists, later trained in the medical profession. It is she who takes Jack's information and develops the counter agent to Zacuity.
I know that sounds like a lot of information, maybe even full of spoilers, but I've just barely scratched the surface. The book has so many layers, to both character and plot. The world building is solid and believable, the characters rich with nuance. It's really hard to distinguish which one should be considered the protagonist. Med is as sympathetic, if not more so, as Jack. The transformation of Threezed from slave to proud free person is a parallel/counterpoint to Paladin's development. The latter had just come online a few weeks prior to the novel's initial events, and in one sense is like a child full of curiosity, but whose development is rapid due to accessibility to information networks. Threezed is actually more robotic, having to unlearn so many previously trained behaviors. I won't even get into the weird relationship between Eliasz and Paladin, or the question of whether or not a robot could, or should, have a gender identity. Just as all humans are shaped by their heritage and environment, so might artificial intelligence. This book cautions us to be careful not to let systemic biases be programmed into AI, as well as to be aware how those biases shape our own psyche.
Recommended. This goes on my shortlist for next year's Hugo consideration. The only negative I can think of right now is it should have been longer. The many various parts are greater than the sum or the whole, I just wish there had been more parts to examine. Any of the characters could have been the focus of a book all on their own. Most of the flashbacks concern Jack, but it would have been interesting to see more of Threezed's past, as well as the community of scientists who nurtured Med. I would definitely like more background information on Eliasz, who had previously worked policing the indenture market in Las Vegas, which is one of the places Threezed had been sold. Paladin gets temporary autonomy during their pursuit of Jack, and is surprised when that is not revoked at the end of the mission. What does his (her? its?) future hold? I'm not sure if this is the beginning of a series, but if there's a sequel I will want to read it.
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