Technically, I started this book in 2018, but I did the bulk of it on the first of January, so I’m giving myself a pass and starting with it. A book with an “A” title is a good place to start.
Autonomous is about a future where everything is patented, and people, as individual citizens, are treated like potential property and capital rather than individuals who possess innate rights. The impetus for this change in thinking and living comes from the contradiction that exists when sentient, fully thinking robots are introduced to humanity. Author Annalee Newitz posits that if a corporation can absorb the cost of building a new, AI robot and thus own it until it works down it’s debt, than humans can be owned in a similar, contracted manner. This has led to a world where people are either franchised or not, and where you can be sold off on your 18th birthday to the highest bidder. Between that, and the copyright patents on medicine, life is unaffordable for the average person, which leads Judith “Jack” Chen to become a patent pirate, using her extensive bio-engineering knowledge to reverse engineer drugs and sell them to those in need. She’s a sort of 22nd century Robin Hood.
Eventually, Jack reverse engineers a drug that creates powerful addictions to work for the user, resulting in people who work to the point of collapse. Jack realizes her mistake and sets out show the public what the drug corporation responsible for the original product has created, picking up an indentured boy on the way. On the other end, we’re treated to the narrative of the patent officers following her, who also happen to be having a human-robot affair that generates some interesting text about the nature of love, feelings, and gender fluidity.
I love the ideas in this book. There’s so much to unpack about this hypothetical, very believable, future where capitalism has been taken to its furthest extremes. We see how those within the system work and those who are trying to break it. However, I had a hard time getting it started and really investing in the events because it threw me in too fast to the adventure portion of it. At times, I wish Newitz had given herself more room to just breath in the world she’s created and really let us explore it. She gave some plausible options for how we may deal with climate change too, although it seems that she’s set it far enough down the line that it’s mostly been dealt with, and what has happened just is what it is. I wonder a little bit if there wasn’t enough going on to support the thoroughness of the world itself, and like another plot thread or just more events along the way to the conclusion would have served her world better. It feels like a place she knows and wants to return to, and I kind of hope that one day we’ll get more books about Jack Chen, Paladin and the rest. Apparently, the book has been optioned for a television show, so maybe we’ll get more of it down the line in a different format.