Saturday 2 December 2017

Autonomous is a rich text

Despite being a debut novel, Autonomous is already enjoying a lot of Hugo buzz, helped along by the
Autonomous is jam-packed with ideas.
(Image via Den Of Geek)
prominence of its author, former io9 editor Annalee Newitz.

Set in a corporatist dystopia, the book offers twin narratives of a pharmaceutical pirate named Jack, and Paladin the robotic intellectual property police tasked with catching her. These intersecting stories allow the characters to explore various facets of a post-national libertarian North America where citizenship is commoditized, and human rights only exist for those who can afford them.

The book’s plot takes the characters to cities, provinces and territories throughout Western Canada – communities that members of our book club have called home. Newitz’s understanding of these places, their geography, and cultures is evident.

This is a rich text written with a deep understanding of the genre. Newitz’s academic background is evident in both the plausible science and the narrative construction.

There are more interesting science fictional ideas in this book than many authors choose to explore in an entire career. This is both impressive and overwhelming. It often feels like Newitz is trying to pack in more than the base plot can handle.
Saskatchwanian readers had no problem
believing that Newitz has visited
Moose Jaw and Saskatoon
(Image via

The productivity enhancing drug that is the core of the conflict in the book is both a plausible corporate misdeed and a logical extension of the science fictional concept of “emergent focus” Vernor Vinge introduced in A Deepness In The Sky.

The ontological malaise underpinning the character arc of Paladin is reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream, while also raising questions about consent. Paladin’s feelings are an invasive program that forces her to love her human handler. Some of our readers interpreted this as a metaphor for the patriarchy.

Newitz’s book almost makes some interesting arguments about intellectual property issues, and about the ways in which the rights of patent-holders are abused. Unfortunately, the basis for these ideas is not provided nor fully explored, and no alternative to the status quo is proposed.

True to the title, a main conceptual focus of the novel is to explore the ways in which sentient beings gain or lose autonomy, and to show why this matters. Newitz links the erosion of human rights to legislative negligence that unevenly granted rights to sentient robots. The result is a society that is unjust to many humans who have the same legal standing — and lack of autonomy — as most robots.

Some of our group found several relationships within the book to be problematic. The power
Corporations pushing productivity
enhancing drugs is another way in
which human autonomy is undermined
in Newitz' debut novel.
(Image by GladisAbril via

dynamic between Jack and an escaped slave was questioned, as was the age gap between Paladin (an 18 month old android) and her amorous corporate handler (an adult human). Anytime one person in a sexual relationship had less than full autonomy, we had significant qualms.

And in this way, the book prompted an exceptional amount of discussion amongst our book club. For every engaging idea the reader had to chew on, there seemed to be some flaw to dissect.

The plot structure, which alternates between Jack’s and Paladin’s points of view, may be the most fundamental challenge of the book. Most chapters seem to undermine the narrative tension of the subsequent chapter: Jack isn’t in Vancouver, so we know Paladin won’t find her there. Paladin isn’t in Saskatoon, so we know Jack’s not in danger.

Taken on their own, each of these stories are well-written, tightly plotted, and interesting. There is depth in the writing and in some of the explorations of identity, but we felt like these parallel narratives undermined each other often enough to distract the reader from the story.

Autonomous is an extraordinarily promising debut. Any book that provokes such intense — and interesting — discussions should be a strong contender for the Hugo Awards. We are looking forward to her next work.

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