Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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It’s July 2144. Judith “Jack” Chen operates beneath the law, running pirated drugs across the navigable Arctic Ocean. She’s a futuristic Robin Hood, delivering affordable copies of expensive patented drugs to people in need.

Image of Autonomous book jacket

Title: Autonomous
Author: Annalee Newitz
Publisher: Tor Books, 2017
Audiobook: McMillan Audio, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda
Reading time: 10h 30m

But the Intellectual Property Coalition would love to shut her down, especially after her pirated copy of a big pharma drug starts making people sick. Enter Paladin, a military-grade robot with an unusual sexual curiosity, and his mercenary human partner Eliasz. Together they hunt for Jack—And along the way, they fall in love.

In Autonomous, robots explore what it means to be human. Comparisons with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick are hard to avoid. But Autonomous is much more than a rehash of Dick’s work. It’s a coming-of-age story for Paladin, who must learn to be human while simultaneously learning to be robot. For much of the story, Newitz cleverly narrates using Paladin’s perspective, and in doing so, deeply explores relationships, independence, and the struggle to understand one’s own emotions.

Woven through the main theme of humanness are two more subtle themes, property and sexuality. Autonomous presents several topics for your consideration. Should companies own drug patents and set their prices? Should robots be owned or free? If robots can be owned, why not humans? If bisexuality and homosexuality are acceptable, then why not sex between humans and robots? The book compares crashing and rebooting to orgasm. While my computer might enjoy it, I certainly don’t. Maybe I’m just not ready to have sex with my computer.

In Autonomous, robots explore what it means to be human.

These philosophical dilemmas pervade the story’s landscape. Newitz treats them as window dressing, so don’t expect a solution. There is no Bible-thumping in Autonomous.

Frankly, I felt let down by the protagonist Jack. She was only indirectly involved in devising a cure for the runaway drug, and—spoiler alert—she failed to subdue Eliasz and Paladin. Apparently, Newitz intended a hero’s journey character arc for Jack—starting as a pirate in the ocean, struggling through the story in an upside-down world where her good deeds are punished, then finishing again as a pirate in the ocean. But Jack failed to serve as the hero and didn’t grow or change significantly from her experience.

Paladin had a much more interesting and dramatic character arc, and so did the minor characters Med and Threezed. The two robots, Paladin and Med, were anthropomorphized in a way that felt natural, not cliché or forced. These aspects saved Autonomous in spite of Jack’s flat character, making it a great story and satisfying read.

The dark, pharma-punk future of expensive drugs and ruthless patent protection paints a very believable world. The effects of global warming and population growth enhance the story but don’t overwhelm it.

I read the McMillan Audio version. Narrator Jennifer Ikeda did a great job with character voices, distinguishing them subtly without drawing attention to herself as the narrator. Her clear voice let me cruise through the book at 1.5x. This book was an enjoyable listen.

You might expect an author who is better known for her journalism and non-fiction work to produce dry and unimaginative fiction. Not a problem for Annalee Newitz. In autonomous, Newitz uses the depth of her scientific knowledge for a foundation, then builds a story with vivid and artful prose. For someone like me—a former software engineer transitioning to fiction—Newitz has set the bar pretty high.

That is the end of my data.

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