Book Review: AUTONOMOUS (2017)

Figure 1 – Annalee Newitz (2008-Wikipedia)

I first heard about this book and its author when I got an email from a local publicist asking if I could let Vancouver fandom know that she (Ms. Newitz) would be reading in Vancouver on the 15th of this month. Well, I’m always happy to oblige—besides, I get free review books; what’s not to like? But I like to know what I’m pushing (that’s deliberate, but you’ll have to read the book—or at least my review—to know why), so I started looking it up. My response was that I would be happy to, but I’d like an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) so I could see the book for myself.

Annalee Newitz is the tech-culture editor at Ars Technica, founded i09, and was formerly the editor-in-chief of tech site Gizmodo. She’s got a Ph.D., and has written one non-fiction book; plus, she’s been published in a lot of prestigious publications. So she definitely knows her stuff.
On the ARC’s cover, Autonomous is described by Neal Stephenson as being “to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet.” Heady praise indeed! And on the back of the ARC, William Gibson himself (author of Neuromancer, as if you didn’t already know) is quoted as saying the book was “something genuinely and thrillingly new”!

Figure 2 – Autonomous Cover – Design by Will Staehle

So it was with genuine and thrilling trepidation that I cracked this ARC—and was hooked on it from the first couple of pages. Now here’s where I’m going to have to be circumspect in my description of the book’s content. Although they don’t bother me a lot, I’m told that many people—including my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk—dislike spoilers intensely. So I will talk about the book without giving away too much about what happens.

The year is 2144, and Judith (“Jack”) Chen is a biotech pirate. In a time after global disasters have totally changed the face of—for example—Africa; a time where the human genome is not only sequenced, but nearly understood; a time where anyone can write gene-altering viruses and sequences in commercial or underground labs, nearly any biotech that could be profitable is owned by a few large conglomerates or cartels. There are some governmental limits on what can be produced, but thanks to the African Federation, which has fewer limits than the Northern Zone (what used to be Canada and part of the Northern USA), the Euro Zone, or Shenzen, people are not only enthusiastically making gene mods for (to) humans, plants and animals, but are also enthusiastically using those mods. Biotech is Big Business.

There are conspiracy theorists today who think that Big Pharm actually has and conceals cures (or alleviations) for cancer and other deadly diseases and human ills; in this book it’s a known fact. But these cures are available to anyone with the right amount of cash; not only cures for things like cancer, but also hereditary diseases and many others. But here’s the rub… most people can’t afford them. In fact, most people—people like you and me—are poor enough not only to indenture themselves for years, but also to indenture their offspring even at birth so as to get paid against their future earnings.

And that’s where Jack and other biotech pirates (considered “terrorists” by the IPC) come in; they reverse engineer genetech and distribute the substitute drugs for free or cheap in places like the Free Zone. They are subject to imprisonment or death. If that’s what this book was about, it would be a new thing indeed, and Jack’s struggles against this future “establishment” would be thrilling enough to carry the book.

But here’s the thing: AI is a well-established thing in this future. There are tens of thousands of bots around the world, some of which have earned autonomy and are their own “person.” One of the characters in this book is a bot named Paladin, an ex-military model, who (I use the pronoun deliberately) has a human brain in his abdomen. Paladin is partnered with—and subject to the control of—a human named Eliasz, who is tracking Jack with the aim of either imprisoning her or killing her and her junior partner, a human youngster named “Threezed.”

Paladin has a certain degree of autonomy, but as the book goes on, yearns for full autonomy—where Eliasz or the authorities they work for (IPC)—don’t have access to all of his thoughts and memories. He doesn’t yet know it, but what he yearns for is privacy.

And Eliasz is falling in love with Paladin, who has no organic parts aside from his human brain, and is therefore confused by human romanticism and sexuality. They are following Jack, who has been “underground” (in part, literally) for years because of an anarchist newsletter and group she helped found many years ago. Jack has recently reverse-engineered a drug by the world’s biggest conglomerate, Zaxy, called “Zacuity.” It’s part of international law that no drug can contain addictive components, but Jack has found out that her version of Zacuity, which is identical down to the molecular level—is not only addicting people, but is killing them!

Zaxy—which has a virtual lock on IPC—has to get rid of Jack before people find out that it’s really Zacuity that’s killing people. The people who are taking the name-brand Zacuity are being given measured doses; the drug is designed to make people concentrate on, and desire to do well, their work. Lots of companies are feeding Zacuity to their employees… but it wasn’t tested completely by Zaxy, and people are becoming addicted to the extent that they forget to eat—like those lab rats with wires into their pleasure centres—and focus their entire existence on their jobs.

And all of this is set against a background, as I’ve said, of indenture… where your normal person can remain indentured—no more college loans, you just sign away a few years of your life!—for many years; where people can sign away their children’s futures for money. And where bots who can be mentally as much “people” as you and I (hey, I know about me, but I’m not sure about you!) are forced into slavery. What cost autonomy, and does it ever really come?

*CONCLUSIONS*: So is this book the biotech equivalent of Neuromancer? Not in my opinion; although it is one of the best—if not the best—hard-SF books I’ve read since The Peripheral (in fact, it very much reminds me of that Gibson book), I don’t feel that it’s groundbreaking in the sense that it brings up ideas nobody’s thought about or put together before, as William Gibson did. But it is a very good SF book; a very good book for futurists. It builds on the work of many people, and it asks questions about many things. Like the ownership of genetech, and the nature of thought—machine and human—and the nature of autonomy (naturally); and also another question of ownership. Can we—should we—own another person, whether natural or artificial? Because indenture, in my mind, is the same as slavery. I thought we settled that question in the nineteenth century. My rating? Five whatchamacallits out of five: ¤¤¤¤¤

As mentioned before Annalee Newitz will be reading this coming Monday, January 15th, at Massy Books at 2206 Main Street in Vancouver, from 7-8:30 p.m. Area people, as well as Seattle/Portland fans, are encouraged to come. This is her only Western stop that I know of; I’m told that from here she goes to Saskatchewan and Ontario. The B&T Lynne and I will definitely be there!

*LAST WORDS* Okay, I’m gonna snark a tiny bit here: I absolutely hate the pseudo-word “Alright,” which is used throughout this book in place of the correct “All right.” Go ahead, call me a reactionary.

I’m looking forward to your comment(s) on this column. You can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I link to this column. All comments, pro or con, are welcome, so don’t feel you have to agree with me to comment. And remember, my opinion is only my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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