Annalee Newitz – Autonomous

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, fabricating cheap medicines for those who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses.

Hot on her trail is an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a deadly military agent, and his indentured robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop Jack, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understands.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous was a challenging read. Not because it was a slog to get through, or because I couldn’t connect to the characters, but because it posed so many questions to chew on. There are political and environmental quandaries, there was commentary on academic practices and the way research is commercialised. But perhaps more importantly to me, it made me consider my thoughts on gender identity and on power differentials in (sexual) relationships.

Let’s start with those political and environmentalist quandaries. In Autonomous Big Pharma is positioned as the ultimate embodiment of capitalist evil. Many of the societal ills in the book have a direct or indirect link to the power the big pharmacological companies have. A fact that is super relevant in light of the current healthcare situation in the States, but also in many other Western countries. To take my own Netherlands as an example, we may have a system where basic healthcare is available to most, if not all, people and where a medical emergency doesn’t mean you might survive, but end up in bankruptcy, yet our healthcare costs and our dependency on healthcare are increasing year after year, because the median age of our populace is going up. Thus the idea of Big Pharma and other biomedical industry becoming the more powerful seems a very plausible supposition. Autonomous’ society seems like commentary on that situation.

Newitz also posits a dystopia based both on climate change and the ultimate corporatisation of our global government system, a theme that I’ve been encountering more often of late, for example in Emma Newman’s After Atlas. In both books this corporatisation leads to people become the property of the corporations, whether literally such as in the case of Threezed or as an indentured servant working towards autonomy such as Paladin or Carlos in the Newman book. It shows that slavery is ever present, despite us liking to think it is gone, and that it might return even more openly in the future if we are not vigilant in combatting it and fighting for everyone’s freedom.

One element in the world building that I really enjoyed was the maker aesthetic and the ethical hackers/pirates. They represent the discussion about the availability of patents and research results to the larger public, which is a hotly debated issue in current academia as well. There is the eternal debate about whether patents do not last too long, to the detriment of society and those who are less fortunate, but also the movement of Open Access and the thesis that information should be free. Aaron Swartz rebelled against the enormous costs of academic journal subscriptions by downloading a large number of academic articles at MIT and was subsequently arrested. He reminded me of our ethical hackers, more so than the current hot button discussion topic, Sci-Hub, who seem far less ethical. Billious Pills is more like a patent breaking ArXiv, than a Napster for academic articles and patents, the way Sci-Hub is. I came across an article written for a blog for one of the research institutes at work and they featured a co-operative brick.brio that immediately made me think of the pirate fabbers. This is how I imagine them getting to work.

There was one plot point that left me feeling conflicted, but it may serve as a spoiler, so if you want to remain unspoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. I was made very uncomfortable by Paladin’s gender identification. Or rather by the fact that it felt as if she let Eliasz determine this for her. When we first meet Paladin, they are firmly of the belief that they are a robot and as such they have no gender, yet the pronouns used for them is he/him. Yet when he gets partnered with Eliasz and they develop feelings for each other, Eliasz feels shame for this because he sees Paladin as male. When he discovers that Paladin’s biological core was female, he immediately switches his pronoun use to female and throws himself wholeheartedly into their relationship. I found myself incredibly conflicted by Paladin’s apparent easy acceptance of this switch in her pronouns. It felt as if she was letting her gender identification be defined by Eliasz’ preferences, which doesn’t feel like a good thing. Additionally, Eliasz’ implied homophobia also made me super uncomfortable.

Talking with my friends Jenny and Ellen about the book and my conflicted feelings about Paladin’s self identification, one element they flagged as far more problematic than my issues with Paladin, was the relationship between Jack and Threezed. For a child raised as what is in essence a pleasure slave, Threezed’s sleeping with Jack is far more problematic than I realised at first blush. I naively assumed he just imprinted on Jack as his saviour and thus developed feelings for her, yet on closer inspection it was anything but that innocent. And the question that follows that realisation is, does Jack realise this as well and is she taking advantage of Threezed? And it seems as if the answer to that must be yes, which sucks, because that is bad. And furthermore, why didn’t I spot that power differential and the inherent problems that it brings to any kind of relationship? I’m still mulling that one over.

As I said, Autonomous left me with plenty of food for thought. But it was not just thought-provoking, it was also a fantastic read that kept me reading far beyond my bedtime. The structure of the alternating chapters between Jack and Threezed’s storyline and Paladin and Eliasz’ story arc, was very well paced and made putting the book aside really hard! I loved this book and it is definitely one of my favourite ones this year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.