He accessed his memory of Eliasz saying “I am not a faggot” for the seven hundred and sixteenth time. “Faggot” was a word for something that only humans cared about. Maybe Eliasz really was like the sprinkler system at Arcata Solar Farm, mistaking Paladin for something he was not.
Finally, Paladin considered the possibility that his own feelings were also an illusion. Every indentured bot knew that there were programs running in his mind that he could not access, nor control– and these programs were designed to inspire loyalty. But were they also supposed to make him care this much about small physiological changes in Eliasz’ body? (128)
Annalee Newitz is no stranger to readers of SF, and she has penned some fine non-fiction. Her first novel, Autonomous, appeared in September 2017 to accolades. We finally get around to reviewing this provocative work, which addresses ownership, patent piracy, indentured servitude, pharmaceutical availability, personal autonomy, and (as in the section quoted above) love, friendship, and sex between natural and artificial beings, who may (both) be at the mercy of their programming.
Author: Annalee Newitz
First published September 2017
In the middle of the next century, an anti-patent pharmaceutical pirate discovers that the new drug she has replicated has disturbing side effects. She and her associates quickly find themselves the targets of a zealous law enforcement agent and his biotechnical/robotic partner. We’re in a world where bots have gained human rights, though they often face periods of indenture. And, “if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?” (224)
The author understands the issues raised by artificial sentience, and how they reflect on our understanding of ourselves. As the characters move through the novel’s complex world, we encounter the realities of that culture– we even hear of “features central to bot architecture” (222). We also see humans profoundly changed by this shared world, where everything and everyone has become a commodity.
At one point, we find ourselves in a disturbing market selling sentient beings. Law enforcement has trouble locating the actual criminals. In addition to designer bots, it is legal to indenture adult humans modified to “look forever like vulnerable schoolboys and Lolitas”(248). Every SF novel eventually becomes alternate history, but this one feels more credible than most. Reading Newitz in 2018 feels a little like reading William Gibson in 1984.
The rapid conclusion feels a little forced. Newitz has written a novel of ideas in the form of a thriller. The conventions overused in that latter genre nearly trump the former in the concluding chapters.
Emotional Response: 5/6 The novel’s best moments give us robotic dilemmas that parallel ours in ways beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing.
Overall score: 6/6 If you’re looking at a thoughtful and thought-out take on the ideas encountered in Westworld and Ex Machina, you probably want to read Autonomous. If you’re wondering about the future implications of property and patent laws, this novel will give you much to consider.
In total, Autonomous receives 36/42