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May 28, 2018

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, is the best new science fiction novel I’ve read since Dexter Palmer’s Version Control. Fast-paced and set in the future, the details of its world are extrapolated from the directions our world is taking, and the conclusions are sobering, although the ending of the story is not without hope.

The main characters we meet first are Jack and a slave, whose cruel “fusehead” owner she has killed in the course of his attempted robbery on her submarine. Jack is a scientist, sailing off the coast of present-day British Columbia, reverse engineering expensive patented drugs in order to give them to sick people all over the world. The trouble starts when her free version of a drug called “Zacuity” starts producing undesirable effects and Jack finds out that the patented version has unadvertised problems:
“Jack had to admit she’d gotten sloppy. When she reverse engineered the Zacuity, its molecular structure was almost exactly like what she’d seen in dozens of other productivity and alertness drugs, so she hadn’t bothered to investigate further. Obviously she knew Zacuity might have some slightly undesirable side effects. But these fun-time worker drugs subsidized her real work on antivirals and gene therapies, drugs that saved lives. She needed the quick cash from Zacuity sales so she could keep handing out freebies of the other drugs to people who desperately needed them. It was summer, and a new plague was wafting across the Pacific from the Asian Union. There was no time to waste. People with no credits would be dying soon, and the pharma companies didn’t give a shit. That’s why Jack had rushed to sell those thousands of doses of untested Zacuity all across the Free Trade Zone. Now she was flush with good meds, but that hardly mattered. If she’d caused that student’s drug meltdown, Jack had screwed up on every possible level, from science to ethics.”

The second pair of main characters we meet are a robot called Paladin and his human companion, Eliasz. They seem to be the bad guys since they work for the “Federation office of the International Property Coalition” and are trying to hunt down Jack for patent violations. But we sympathize with Paladin’s longing to know what she would think or feel without the programs that control her, and we come to sympathize with Eliasz’s clumsy human attempts to show fondness for Paladin.

Jack also fumbles her attempts to show gratitude to and fondness for the slave, who is called “Threezed.”

The two storylines are thematically linked by ideas about autonomy, both what it is and what it ought to be. Even the fictional situation with the drug patents contributes, as the patent system can be compared to the indenture system:
“the patent system did seem to be at the root of a lot of social problems. Only people with money could benefit from new medicine. Therefore, only the haves could remain physically healthy, while the have-nots couldn’t keep their minds sharp enough to work the good jobs, and didn’t generally live beyond a hundred. Plus, the cycle was passed down unfairly through families. The people who couldn’t afford patented meds were likely to have sickly, short-lived children who became indentured and never got out.”

We get glimpses of the world of the future, like Casablanca, which is now “one of the African Federation’s key port cities, flush with international capital” since the
“late twenty-first century Collapse, which left populations and farms ravaged by plagues. Afterwards, the newly formed African Federation hatched a ten-year plan from their headquarters in Johannesburg. They promised the Federation’s three hundred million surviving citizens that they would build the most high-tech agricultural economy in the world.
A sweeping reform bill allowed the Federation government to transform virtually the entire continent into a special economic zone with no regulations on research into anything that could make farming lucrative again. Eurozone and Asian Union companies flocked to the cosmopolitan Federation cities to research transgenic animals that secreted drugs; synthetic fast-growing organisms; metagenetic topsoil engineering; and exo-agriculture that could thrive offworld for export to the Moon and Mars colonies. Recent advances in molecular engineering had been ruled unsafe and ethically questionable in other economic coalitions. But not in the African Federation.”

And we find out more about why so many humans and robots are unable to become autonomous. It’s because of
“the emergence of robot kinetic intelligence in the 2050s, followed by early meetings of the International Property Coalition. Under IPC law, companies could offset the cost of building robots by retaining ownership for up to ten years….a series of court cases established human rights for artificial beings with human-level or greater intelligence. Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments and economic coalitions that later became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles, established the rights of humans to become indentured, too. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?”

Autonomous is a well-told story about an altogether too-possible future, with sympathetic  and widely-diverse characters who will make you care about the particulars. Even if you’ve never read a science fiction novel before, you should read this one.


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