Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz


In a world where patent companies control the world, Jack pirates drugs for the poor. In the course of cloning a productivity drug, she accidentally unleashes a wave of lethal addictions to banal tasks. But did she make a mistake cloning the drug? No. She learns that big-pharma company Zaxy is trying to expand their reach by addicting high-tech workers to a patented drug—and to their jobs. As Jack races to engineer a cure, Zaxy deploys a military bot and a human partner to hunt her down and keep their trade secrets secret.

Newitz has written a solid 4.5 star book that will influence new-wave cyberpunk worldbuilding for some time to come. She throws out technically-sound details that create an immersive world that is absolutely compelling: from indentured humans and bots to smart knives and ropes; from retinal displays to corrupt and distracted senators; from absolutely credible bot dialog to credible daemons and cryptography.

Newitz's grasp on the current political situation is clear from the world she paints; I have no problem believing we would arrive at this world within a hundred years. It's a sharp indictment of our corporate-controlled world, the Silicon Valley worship of productivity, and the wage-slavery of capitalism.

AutonomousHowever, her best-realized and most interesting character is not a human, but Paladin: the hunter-bot. And while other reviewers critiqued the character development, I found her characters more human than the everyman laconic and emotion-free cyberpunk protagonist that is my main critique of the genre. Her characters were real enough to keep my interest.

Spoilers will follow.

Other reviewers have critiqued the use of the word "faggot" by the human hunter Eliaz, primarily to express his own self-loathing for his own robo-sexual desire for Paladin, the hunter-bot. It is clear that Newitz is queer-friendly (all of her protagonists are queer) and, just as portraying a murder does not advocate for murderous behavior, use of the word "faggot" as part of an internal conflict is not advocacy, but part of portraying a dark world and conflicted protagonists.

I considered as I read that Paladin and Eliaz love could potentially be read as a mockery of queer sexuality, but I don't think that analysis holds up. The critique of Paladin's switch from use of male to female pronouns as shallow by analogizing it to a human's gender identification doesn't realize how deeply wrought Paladin is. I don't believe Newitz means this as a commentary on trans pronoun use; this analysis represents the projection of human sexuality onto a totally alien bot experience of identity: ironically the thing that prevents the human from encountering Paladin as it is. In the novel's context, the question of gender identity serves as the human's solicitation of consent, circumventing the obedience programs that enslave Paladin to owner-pleasing desires.

In all, I found this exploration of a new type of sexuality between autonomous beings fascinating. I didn't really put a value judgement on it, because it exists in a hypothetical world with a hypothetical being.

I think it is important to critique worlds that have no interest in social justice, but this is not Newitz's world. Hers is a world so well-realized that its as difficult to project our cultural values onto it.

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About the Author

Hi. My name is Jeremiah John. I'm a sf/f writer and activist.

I just completed a dystopian science fiction novel. I run a website which I created that connects farms with churches, mosques, and synagogues to buy fresh vegetables directly and distribute them on a sliding scale to those in need.

In 2003, I spent six months in prison for civil disobedience while working to close the School of the Americas, converting to Christianity, as one does, while I was in the clink.