Review: Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousANovelI read Autonomous back in 2019, and I came out of it a mess of feelings that I’m still picking apart a year later. It would be an understatement to say that this book tells a great story; that its vision of a near-future Earth is hauntingly plausible; that its presentation of AI is both complex and technically informed. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and just thinking about it still makes me upset.

There’s much to recommend this book that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Autonomous, which is for the most part set in midwestern Canada, is the first SF book I’ve ever seen that really tackles the experience of living in and traveling through rural, agricultural spaces and small-to-midsize towns. From the epigraphical lyrics of “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the image of rolling canola fields, there’s a familiarity and intimacy to these landscapes that makes their importance self-evident. (And let’s not forget how closely the agricultural industry is tied to biochemical companies, with their seed patents and their attempt to enforce intellectual property restrictions on the natural cross-pollination of cultivars). As a person who grew up among farmers, hauling hay bales and listening to my father gossip at the seed and feed store, the moments when Newitz dwelt on the farmlands felt both authentic and emotionally charged for me. The prairie landscape of Saskatchewan was not incidental but rather vital to the story that Newitz was telling.

The portrayal of AIs was also gorgeous and nuanced and solidly built. I loved the social protocols for data exchange and greeting and authentication; they felt like the kinds of scripts that humans are even now writing for AIs to make them seem approachable. I also loved how robots do drugs and how they get off — the images of programs glitching, data fragmenting, bad variables making processes slow and hazy and hallucinatory. The cyborg element of the robot build was also a fascinating twist, and the human cast’s human-centric responses to it were believable and ably executed. Newitz’s technical background is on full display here, creating plausible systems of programs that together form people; I’m genuinely excited to see what this author has to offer next.

But there’s also the story itself, which I’ve hidden beneath the jump in case anyone is still worried about spoilers.

This is a book of two parallel stories. The first is pirate Jack Chen’s quest to take down a pharmaceutical company when a drug formula she steals has terrible side effects. The second is the mission to stop Jack at any cost, which pairs the robot Paladin with a human handler. Braiding these two stories together are complicated questions about legal personhood, intellectual property, and the titular autonomy.

Bluntly, this is a book about slavery, and about how easily it can emerge (de facto and/or de jure) out of capitalism.

Jack Chen is enfranchised — a citizen and a legal person — whose personhood was set up for her by her family. Other human characters aren’t so lucky. In Newitz’s future, as a result of the development of AI who had to earn their independent personhood through labor, many humans have also entered indenture contracts (or were born into them). Indeed, to hear the narrator tell it, humans demanded the opportunity to sell away their personhood. As one might imagine, indenture contracts were almost always lopsided in favor of the contract holder, and contracts could be sold in bulk like any other business asset. As one might imagine, contract holders practice other forms of abuse and dehumanization, in addition to mere ownership of people’s labor.

Paladin, on the other hand, is not autonomous. There are thoughts that Paladin is not capable of thinking, questions that Paladin is not capable of asking, due to programming intended to keep Paladin subservient. Autonomy is a reward that Paladin can earn, if she can survive the work that she “owes” to the company that crafted her. (Most robots on the same track don’t survive that long.)

In a world where the nation-state has largely been subsumed by corporations, consortiums, and NGOs, the logic of capitalism reigns supreme — and piracy is both a way to survive it and a rallying cry against it. Jack finds her hope in loose associations of individual scientists, driven by curiosity or goodwill or a desire to beat the system; Paladin navigates the gaps in her experience by making connections with other robots. Both these groups have a kind of energy to them that feels at once focused and anarchic, like the movements of birds gathering to form a sky-filling flock. (It gave me flashbacks to grad-school days reading Hardt and Negri’s Multitude.)

Community achieves small, reasonable goals. One drug pulled. One AI granted autonomy. One pirate who sails off into the distance to make new trouble. But that larger scaffolding of depersonalizing capitalism remains, and its logic swallows up those little victories with comfortable ease. And that’s what upsets me, even now — I came out of this book DESPERATE to tear it all down. To shake the foundations of gluttonous capital until they cracked and broke; to insist on the dignity of people in both their emergent communities and their fragile, vital individuality.

This book does not offer the tools for tearing down that system. But in its terrifyingly believable sketch of a possible future, it reminds us that we have a charge: act now to create a better one.

Pirate it, if we have to.

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