Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017. 301 pages $25.99
For months now, book reading has become an alienating experience. You might say that it’s my own fault. Go ahead. Blame the victim. After all, it’s mostly genre fiction that I’ve been reading. So we’re talking about a steady diet of variously, occasionally cleverly, modified remixes of clichés, tropes, plot devices, MacGuffins and characters – why, it may as well be a months-long diet of pizza. Even an occasional new topping would hardly be an inspiration for appetite. Once I looked forward to visiting the library. Now, walking into the Chicago Public Library threatens to become a visit to a temple of monotony.
(Don’t get me started on all the other things deficient at Chicago’s public libraries.)
And of course such a jaundiced attitude is going to color any reading experience. So when I picked up Annalee Newitz’ new first novel, my expectations were seriously low. Neal Stephenson’s cover blurb, “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet,” did not help. I tend to avoid Stephenson’s work and don’t get me started on William Gibson and “cyberpunk.” I’m none to enthused about most treatments of Artificial Intelligence, either. Nonetheless, I borrowed the book.
It took a while, but I came to like this book very much.
The story overall could be characterized as an optimistic dystopia. It’s mid-22nd Century. Humanity has been through a catastrophe including climate change but civilization and scientific progress continues. The trade-off being that, in most parts of the world, property rights have become primary above all else. This includes a resurrection of slavery in the guise of “indentured servitude.” Since it’s done with “consent” and “contract” and is not hereditary, the slaves have some rights and judicial recourse – about as much as one might cynically expect. In this way, the institution of slavery more closely resembles that of the Roman Empire than that of the U.S. South, but it’s still pretty ugly. Likewise, intellectual property comes close behind in enforcement if not ahead. Sci-fi habitually deals with big issues, and for this novel, one of them is: “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”
Enter “Jack”, aka Judith Chen, an intellectual property pirate who reverse engineers proprietary new drugs so that the latest medicines can be available to all. Usually she does due diligence on her work, but she was in a hurry. It may have seemed harmless at the time, but cloning Zaxy’s new work aid (“productivity enhancer”) “Zacuity” without having done so turns out to have been a Really Bad Idea. The drug, used without supervision, turns out to be massively and disastrously addictive.
Enter International Property Coalition agent Eliasz and his nearly fresh-off-the-assembly-line robot partner Paladin, who are tasked with hunting down Jack as the most likely suspect responsible for turning loose a deadly new street drug.
And of course, from there it is a violent chase with excursions into side issues of gender and sexuality.
What do I like about this novel? Mostly its dystopic optimism, I think. There is a resistance to this property über alles civilization. The resistance does have an academic, hapless hipster vibe to it, thus its ineffective, nibbling at the edges quality is consequently very plausible. The link between resistance and criminality is also quite plausible. Newitz’ villains (the cops) are also given a degree of humanity that some authors might neglect. And finally, Newitz is a good, experienced writer – not brilliant as there were no passages that frizzed my hair, but the narration goes down smoothly.
What do I have to complain about? Well, first of all Eliasz and Paladin are extraordinarily ruthless and violent in pursuit of their duties. It’s not clear from the story just where they have the authority to be so, leaving it open for some to assume it’s just a lefty police stereotype or perhaps it is an artefact of the various “punk” genres where authority, be it corporate or state, can do as it pleases. That the beneficiary of said violence is a Big Corporation just rubs it in. The robots of the story are fairly conventional sci-fi props and therefore not especially credible to me though they do contribute to the discussion of “freedom”. And I do have one big quarrel with the plotting. At one point, Eliasz visits Las Vegas alone in pursuit of a lead, Las Vegas being where he got his start in law enforcement and where he (might) still have contacts among the “usual suspects” who might have that information. Among other things, this excursion allows Newitz to provide some background as to Eliasz’ motivations (humanity!), but Newitz stops Eliasz after precisely one interview. In detective fiction (and probably in reality), there would be several interviews, each allowing for a character sketch of the interviewee and for an education about the demimonde of that society, not to mention what touching base with some of Eliasz’ old police colleagues might have revealed: a missed opportunity though it may have had consequences for pacing.
And what about an answer to Newitz’ Big Question about freedom and property? There’s no straight answer. “Freedom” is a particularly slippery concept in any case, but regardless of what Newitz may have had in mind, each reader is going to bring their own baggage to the conversation. I speculate that Newitz might be okay with a highly qualified “yes” as an answer. At the end of the book, the resistance remains, after all. And Eliasz and Paladin end up emigrating to Mars. My own answer would depend on how one defines, in an operational sense, “freedom.” I’m not sure how much Autonomous contributes to what is a long ongoing conversation, but since I’m still thinking about it, that’s a good sign.
I may be more pleased with this book than I should be, but I’m not the only one. The Chicago Public Library has 15 hardcopies plus 6 electronic “copies” and while, as of July 12, 2018, there are 3 available hardcopies scattered about the city, there are 8 people waiting in line to read the book. You have my recommendation and theirs.
Post Script: for a good discussion about the politics of “cyberpunk” that speaks to many of my misgivings, see Cameron Kunzelman’s Where Are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?