Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

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

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.