Reviewed by Rachel Hill
Ursula Le Guin once commented that the works of Margaret Atwood, ‘exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.’ (Guardian) This prediction-satire characterises what Annalee Newitz has achieved in her fiction debut Autonomous, for which she was nominated for 2017 The Nebula Awards best novel. Perhaps unsurprising for the founder of science and technology blog io9.com, Newitz’s novel follows the trajectories of unchecked Big-Pharma, the increasing erosion of workers rights and the advancement of robotics 200 years into the future.
Told with precise language, fast-paced plotting and a diverse cast of characters (including humans, biobots and biohackers), Autonomous updates biopunk – a sub-genre dedicated to exploring the implications of biotechnology – with contemporary political conditions. Thus, “the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property” is a central theme, where hacktivist resistance is pitted against dystopic corporate control.
Autonomous follows a cat-and-mouse narrative which alternates between the patent-pirate Judith Chen, commonly known as ‘Jack,’ and the recently activated military biobot sent to detain her, Paladin. Jack reverse-engineers cosmetic drugs for the blackmarket, a lucrative side-hustle which subsidises her real passion, the development of free antiviral and gene therapies for those most in need. It is after issuing her pirated copy of the yet to be released performance enhancing drug ‘Zacuity’ that she becomes the subject of Paladin’s pursuit.
Zacuity instantly addicts its consumers to work, inducing a state of ceaseless, sleepless frenzy, and fabricating an erotically charged satisfaction in completing menial tasks, resulting in consumers compulsively working until they meet an untimely end. This deadly form of worker optimisation increasing aligns human biology with the escalating rate of production enabled by robotics. The treatment of humans within roboticized levels of production is further reinforced through the indenture of both humans and robots.
Mutual indenture diminishes clear delineations between human and robot. A case in point is the indentured human Threezed, whom Jack initially mistakes for a robot and who often identifies more with other indentured robots than he does with humans. As Newitz states in this editions extra interview material, human-bot indenture illustrates that, “whenever there is slavery in any part of a society, it infects all parts of that society and we are all complicit.” The consequences of indenture are further explored through Paladin’s emerging identity.
The resonances of Paladin’s name, its Latin meaning of ‘servant,’ crystallizes the historical conceptualisations of robots as made to serve, whilst also making the reader wonder if a robot could operate outside of its programming and be truly Autonomous. The question of potential robot autonomy is also staged at the level of Paladin’s body.
As a biobot, Paladin incorporates a human brain, which we are repeatedly told is only used for facial recognition. Nevertheless, this brain leads to humans repeatedly gendering and anthropomorphising Paladin throughout the novel. Paladin’s human investigative partner Eliasz for example, mistakes Paladin’s identity as being generated by this brain, leading him to ask, “isn’t it important for you to know who you really are? Why you feel what you do?” This Robocop archetype, of a human brain maintaining its former identity to control a robot body, is a common trope in SF. Autonomous satirises this trope, illustrating how humankind’s default anthropomorphisations preclude, rather than enhance, our ability to perceive the true difference of another form of being.
Autonomous is an accomplished thriller and sophisticated work which tackles thorny contemporary issues without offering simple solutions. Like the best SF, Autonomous uses a futural lense to consider the ethics of emerging technologies, and the treacherous outcomes which arise if (neoliberal) modes of exploitation are left unchallenged.