Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a razor-sharp look at the future

In 2009, I got a phone call for what turned out to be an internship at a new website about science fiction and science fact called io9. At the other end of the line was Annalee Newitz, the site’s editor, and we chatted about academics, science fiction, and what I wanted to write about. That was the start to a really wild ride, and ultimately has brought me to the place where I am today: writing about science fiction and science fact.

So, I’ll get it out of the way that I owe Annalee big time, but as with any book I crack open, I attempted to get into it objectively. Either way, I really adored Autonomous, her debut novel. It’s a book that crackles with a really intriguing, nuanced vision the future of work, drugs, technology, and ownership that’s both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. If you want a review that’s not mine, I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Adi Robertson’s take over on The Verge. (I did get to take the picture for the review!)

Set about a century in the future, Autonomous follows a pharma pirate named Jack who reverse-engineers drugs to give out to those in need. This future is ruled over by powerful governmental organizations that rigorously enforce property rights and ownership laws, where people and robots can be legally contracted out for work (really, a form of slavery), if they don’t purchase an enfranchisement (citizenship) in any given territory.

When Jack reverse-engineers a drug called Zacuity, a work enhancement drug that gives its user a high while they go about their jobs. It turns out that it’s highly addictive and leads to some bad outcomes: addicts become so addicted to their work that they don’t do anything else, and they end up crashing trains or flooding cities, or just die from forgetting to take a break to drink water. Jack unleashes this drug on the open market, and has to turn around and figure out how to reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, this outbreak of addicts attracts the attention of the International Property Coalition, an organization that enforces intellectual property rights — with armed androids and soldiers. It sends a duo, Eliaz and Paladin, to track her down and take care of the problem.

Annalee plays with a lot of things in this book, and if you read io9 under her tenure, some of this will be familiar. The book plays out a sympathetic argument about intellectual property rights — how things like copyright and patents hamper innovation and contribute to the feedback loop that is capitalism. Jack and her academic compatriots are revolutionaries who work to try and break that system, opening free labs and pirating drugs.

On the other side of things, she explores some interesting thoughts on what the nature of work might be, for robots and humans. With the rise of intelligent robots, a system of contracts comes about: robots can offset the cost of their creation by going into a contract with their ’employers,’ and people are brought in under the same system. It’s essentially dressed-up slavery, and Annalee plays out these arguments between the Eliaz and Paladin’s relationship.

The two dynamics tie into one another, but they are a bit uneven: this feels almost like two books smashed together, but they complement one another decently enough, essentially coming down to citizenship acting as another form of property.

As someone who wrote for io9, I really appreciate the sheer vibrancy of this book. It’s packed with ideas and visuals and weird technologies. It’s like walking through a crowded bazaar somewhere: there’s too much to look and take in, and the book is a sensory overload in paper form. It’s buzzing with huge ideas that warrant their own stories, but Annalee buzzes past them as the main narrative thunders along.

Ultimately, it’s a fantastic, brilliant debut novel. I can’t wait for her next one.

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