Frances reviews: Autonomous

image1Autonomous is a dense and exciting new book by Annalee Newitz. Overflowing with futuristic tech and AI quandaries, Autonomous lies staunchly in the Sci-Fi genre. The book alternates between two main stories, which ultimately converge. The first follows Jack Chen, a pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma and reverse-engineers them to be distributed to the poor and sick. Unfortunately, her most recent drug haul, a productivity drug called Zacuity, turns out to be dangerously addictive and results in multiple deaths. Jack, stricken by guilt, seeks to right this wrong by creating a cure and publicizing the drug manufacturer’s calamitous product.

The drug company, rich in resources and greed, collaborates with the international property police to send two agents after Jack. Paladin, a bot indentured to the military, is one of these agents, as well as the other main point of view in Autonomous. Paladin is programmed to be loyal to and protective of his fellow human agent, Eliasz. But as their search continues, Paladin questions how much of his feelings for Eliasz are programming and how much is real—and mostly whether this distinction matters at all. While Jack’s story takes us through economic disparity and the everlasting exhausting battle of activism, Paladin’s explores sexuality and gender identity. And, of course, both tales discuss autonomy.

As with most Science-Fiction, Autonomous speaks to our current issues, and as such, many of its worlds’ problems are familiar. The wage gap is bigger than ever. A few big companies unduly influence the government’s laws. People’s freedoms are indentured away to the highest bidder. All the characters in the book are striving to understand their place in this perplexing world, and many risk their lives to fight for their truths. I will tell you now, this book does not give the reader a satisfying conclusion where all the good people win and destroy all the bad people. Rather, Autonomous reflects upon the continuing struggle for a better world, and in such a struggle, most people are neither good nor evil—they are simply fighting to survive and protect what they hold dear.


Autonomous is in stores now. (Tor, $25.99, ISBN 0765392070).

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