Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5
World building: 5+

“The student wouldn’t stop doing her homework, and it was going to kill her” – a great first line in the best SF book I’ve read this decade!

In 2144, Property is king, bots run the gamut from carpet cleaners to fully conscious beings capable of love, people and bots are subject to indenture laws, and bio technology can keep you alive and young if you can afford it. Enter Judith “Jack” Chen, an IP pirate who has always dreamed of doing “Good Science”. She reverse engineers drugs from Big Pharma in order to finance giving anti-vitals and gene therapy to those in need. Unfortunately, her last money-maker, though correctly reproduced, is killing people and now the International Property Coalition is after her and they have a license to pursue using any means at hand.

That’s the story line, but the novel is so much more. The two agents sent after Jack are a human (Eliasz) and an advanced military bot (Paladin) with an embedded human brain. Throughout the chase, as Jack tries to engineer a fix and Eliasz and Paladin try to follow her tracks, we are plunged into a fabulous and yet utterly plausible world of the future.

Gender issues, love between different kinds of beings, what it means to be conscious, to have privacy, to be autonomous – these are issues that are explored in depth using the context of a society that has developed AI based beings and legislation to both protect and yet somehow further enslave them. I love when Paladin explores what actions stem from her programming and what from her conscious decision – so applicable to humans as well!

Newitz’ writing flows with such clear descriptions of the physical and networked environment that you slip into the world with no effort, learning a whole new language without struggle. Her characters feel real – each has complex motivations and desires, and each is trying to both survive and do something important in the world into which they have been born. They don’t easily fall into the typical “good guys” and “bad guys” so prevalent in most SF works.

Neal Stephenson says “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet” and I have to say I agree with him. There are plenty of analogies to our social issues but with the extrapolation to a future populated by bots at various levels of consciousness – it’s very hard not to give everything away I’ll stop here and just say – go buy now!

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