I 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.