1. Both stories happen in the future
2. Both stories take place in Canada
3. Both authors have won awards for their books
4. The authors have appeared together on panels to discuss their work, where they are often likely to discuss human/robot sex, for reasons which will become clear in this review.
Writing about the future is a broad topic and goes by a lot of descriptors—science fiction, utopian/dystopian fiction, speculative fiction—there are many choices and fine shades of meaning even amongst the writers who work in these genres.
Ashby’s Company Town is set on a group of deep-water oil rigs nearing the end of their usefulness, yet still densely populated with riggers, sex workers and other community labourers. There are the wealthy owners, the Lynch family, who want to extract the highest profits and extend their legacy, and there are the employees whose work is hard, unhappy, and often dangerous. Despite almost every human having some form of physical augmentation, this is a world populated by characters who might easily be found in a story set during the Texas Oil Boom of the early 20th century.
Newitz’ Autonomous is focused on a future where human augmentation takes a decidedly pharmaceutical path. Drugs are how people enhance their abilities, whether they are scientists or soldiers. Not everyone has access to these performance-enhancing remedies, so there is an illegal marketplace for counterfeit versions, and an underground network of bio-medical workers who make and distribute them. Indentured servitude is common, for both people and robots, some of whom become slaves to pay off the debt of their own training, development and creation. No one in this future is ever truly autonomous.
Company Town centres around Hwa, the daughter of an aging K-pop entertainer. Hwa is born with a facial disfigurement which renders her all but invisible to everyone around her—mostly because people are using augmented reality (AR) systems to *see* the world. Hwa has no augmentations so is just a glitch in the vision of most people. This ability to hide in plain sight, plus her superior martial arts training, make her perfect for the job of protecting sex workers on the rig. Her fighting skills and social invisibility bring her to the attention of the Lynch family, and she is asked to become the personal bodyguard for the heir to the Lynch fortune, a wimpy teenager named Joel. He needs constant protection as he’s been threatened with assassination by killers from the future and Hwa is presumed to be invisible to them as well.
Autonomous follows Jack Chen, who pirates patented drugs to sell on the underground market, and a weaponised military robot called Paladin and their human partner Eliaz. When Jack reverse-engineers a new drug called Zacuity she quickly discovers it has a very serious side-effect. At first she thinks she’s made a mistake in her formulation, but it’s not just her version that’s causing people to literally work themselves to death. Paladin is sent out to find whoever is making the pirated drugs and as the story progresses we see them follow the trail that leads to Jack.
Both Ashby and Newitz have explored sexuality and relationships between human and non-human beings in their work. Ashby’s first novel vN has a deep vein of robot sexuality to it. In these futures there’s something to satisfy everyone’s tastes.
Autonomous explores this theme quite explicitly, through a sexual relationship Jack begins with a human slave she rescues, and an attraction Eliaz develops for his robot partner, Paladin. There’s also a polyamourous drug-fueled orgy which Paladin observes but chooses not to participate in. Eliaz feels guilty for his attraction, and an initial non-consensual encounter he has with Paladin. He’s also uncomfortable because he assumes a military robot would identify as male and Eliaz identifies as heterosexual. He only feels comfortable with his fascination when he finds out that Paladin’s wetware brain came from a biological female. Paladin has no gender or sexual identity, and is quite confused by Eliaz’ oddly primitive constraints, but also finds some level of understanding of sexual pleasure through research and more solitary, internal means. Newitz goes to great lengths to cover all the bases here and it’s handled with sensitivity and cultural awareness.
Sadly, my singular complaint about Autonomous is that I found the whole relationship between Paladin and Eliaz to be superfluous. As the chapters alternated between Jack’s attempts to work with the underground network to fix the Zacuity side effect, working alongside both humans and robots, and feeling under the gun to get their work done before they are captured by Paladin, versus Eliaz’ uncomfortable attempts to seduce Paladin as they track Jack’s movements, I genuinely just wanted to skim through the Paladin parts of the story and get back to Jack and her team. I would have enjoyed Autonomous more if Jack had been the solitary main character, and Paladin and Eliaz had been edited back to secondary characters with little back story.
I liked both Company Town and Autonomous and found them to be invigorating examples of future fiction. As is often common with stories that describe things and experiences that do not yet exist, I found that I sometimes couldn’t follow the action being described, or the technology being used—which doesn’t mean that both stories weren’t a totally fun ride to go on. If you like speculative fiction, both Company Town and Autonomous should be on your *To Read* pile.
Company Town ✰✰✰✰ | Autonomous ✰✰✰
*Full disclosure: Madeline Ashby is a friend and colleague. She works with Changeist on various ongoing projects. I bought my Kindle copy of Company Town, but she gifted me an autographed paperback copy last year.