Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review of Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (2017, Orbit)

Earth, 2144. Information has become the key commodity and everything can be owned, including humans. Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate that reverse engineers drugs to make them available to the poor. Her latest batch, however, is creating havoc by making users so compulsively addicted to their work that they’ll do anything to fulfil a task including put themselves and others at risk. She quickly realises that the drug she’s copied and distributed is being illegally produced by a large multinational that is now intent on making her the scapegoat for the deadly hit. While she races to try and find a solution, the company has persuaded authorities to track her down. Tasked with the job is Eliasz, an experienced military agent, and Paladin, a rookie indentured robot. As they try to locate Jack they start to form a close bond that neither is comfortable with but they nonetheless form an effective, deadly team.

In Autonomous Annalee Newitz imagines a world reconfigured into large trading zones, where power and capital are driven by information and patents, and not everybody or everything possess autonomy but are indentured in some way. Pushing back against the monopolies controlling intellectual property are pockets of scholar activists who believe in open knowledge. Newitz’s story follows the exploits of one of these activists, a kind of pharmaceutical Robin Hood who manufactures patented drugs and distributes them to those that need them rather than can simply afford them, and an attempt to track her down by an agent/robot pairing. The book is pitched as a biotech/AI version of Neuromancer. And while it does have a kind of cyberpunk feel, it lacks somewhat on the world-making and depth of story. While the reader is placed in a future world, there’s little sense as to it history or configuration or how it presently operates and is governed other than some kind of alliance between militarized trading zones and large corporations. The story is fairly linear and centred on three main characters (and another who is partially developed), and is more used to explore some ideas relating to informational capitalism and biotech, and identity, autonomy and sexuality, than to spin a more layered and complex chase. The result is some interesting ideas, though some could have been more fully worked through – for example, in relation to human-robot desire/relations - set within a loose framing that leads to an underwhelming denouement. Which was a shame as there was a lot of potential for more.

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