18 March 2018

Review - Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Cover by Will Staehl
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 15 March 2018
PB, 291pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a copy of Autonomous to review.

In the future of 2144, things are not bright, even if the cover of this book is orange. The chained robot arm depicted here reflects the spirit of the time - corrosive property rights and free market ideology that have displaced states and tainted science, a shadowy International Property Coalition using its own armed forces to investigate and punish transgressions, patents - seemingly of indefinite duration - treated as Holy Writ and the poor sold into indentured servitude.

The insatiable lust of the market to turn everything into property is illustrated by a glitteringly casuistical argument: once it was accepted that bots, which start as property can, being intelligent, earn their autonomy, it also surely follows that humans, born free, can enter servitude (read: slavery). And the consequences follow - in a particularly grim scene, we see the "human resources" markets of Las Vegas where "The Alice Shop" sells just what the name suggests.

Yet there is hope. Free Labs attempt to generate inventions outside the proprietary system, and bio pirates reverse-engineer and clone drugs for the benefit of the poor. But they are always waiting for the moment when their labs will be raided by the IPC's goons.

Against this background, Newitz sets up a deceptively simply story, essentially a chase. The notorious "Captain" Jack Chen, is a pirate, smuggler and, to the IPC, a terrorist. She has inadvertently copied a new drug which is very dangerous indeed. The IPC will kill to protect its secrets, so as she attempts to put right the damage she's done, Jack knows there will be a pursuit.

That pursuit is led by a man - Eliasz - and an indentured robot, Paladin, enforcers for the IPC. As we watch them close in on Jack, we see how ruthless they can be, alternately wheedling their way in with activists, scientists and the counterculture generally, and using extreme force ("That was the last useful information they got out of her, though they continued to beat and drug her for the next three hours...")

Eliasz and Paladin seem like monsters. They certainly often act like monsters. Yet at the same time, they are in a delicate, evolving and even beautiful relationship, which Newitz portrays all the more powerfully for there almost being no references that we can use for what it is. Even as he murders and mains, Paladin is running queries, trying to understand what Eliasz is feeling. There are almost humorous scenes where he seeks advice from other robots.

And yet there's a power imbalance here that casts a shadow over the relationship, if we follow through the implications. Paladin is shackled to Eliasz, not physically but by little routines and programs with cynical names like "gdoggie", which manipulate and control his responses. He is not "autonomous". And ultimately Paladin is owned by IPC, not even by Eliasz himself so whatever accomodation arises between them may not survive the duration of the mission. As the two grow close we have to wonder how far Paladin would be free to say "no". Questions of freedom, of control and of destiny hang in the air.

At the same as we are learning about Eliasz and Paladin, Newitz gives us episodes from some 30 years earlier showing Jack's early life and the web of relationships that formed around her as she grew up, progressing from youthful radical to jailed activist to smuggler and pirate. These, together with her travels, and those of the IPC agents, between Canada and North Africa, the main locations in the book, sketch what society has become and establish a wealth of believable characters seeking, in various ways, to subvert or ameliorate the grip of the corporations on peoples' lives.

The plot itself may be straightforward, but with all these carefully layered and nuanced relationships Newitz deftly echoes the themes of autonomy and dependence which she explores with Paladin and Eliasz. The result is a satisfyingly complex read where nothing is ever quite what it seems and nobody - human or bot - is entirely in the right (or the wrong).

A genuinely fresh and thought provoking read and a book I stayed up late into the night to finish.

For more about Autonomous, see the publisher's website here.

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