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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Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss

If you’ve been following along with my column for Kirkus Reviews (and these blog posts), you might have seen me reference one book a lot: Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (or its updated version, Trillion Year Spree.) These two histories are incredibly important in the world of genre history, and I’ve paged through my copies many, many times. Thus, it was really unfortunate to see Aldiss pass away last month. He’s a huge figure within the community, not only as a commentator, but as an author.

He’s largely unknown to mainstream audiences, save for the fact that his short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ was adapted into a Steven Spielberg film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence – in my mind, an underrated film about a robotic boy yearning for the love of his mother.

I actually met Aldiss over a decade ago while I studied abroad in England — I attended a literary festival in Oxford, where he and fellow local author Philip Pullman discussed science fiction and fantasy. It was an interesting discussion, and I’m glad that I had the chance to meet him, if briefly.

Go read Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss over on Kirkus Reviews.

Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall

It’s been a while. I’ve sadly neglected my Kirkus column: work has been busy, which means that on my off-days, I’m trying to stay away from the computer and focus on other writing / reading. I’m trying to get back into it, though, and to celebrate yesterday’s eclipse, I put together a story about Isaac Asimov’s famous story, Nightfall.

This is probably the first story that I read of Asimov’s, or at least, it was an early one. It’s one of my favorites, and going back to revisit it after years and years was something. It holds up nicely, I think. I also got a chance to interview the director behind one of the adaptations, which was a delight.

Go read History in a nutshell: Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov. Asimov devotes a couple of chapters to this story, from the conception of it to the later novelization by Robert Silverberg.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Second Edition, Adam Roberts. Roberts’ book is a fantastic resource, and when I learned that there was a new edition to it, I rushed out to buy it. This one is significantly longer, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about other parts of SF history. This one has some good analysis of Asimov’s story.

I also interviewed Gwenyth Gibby, who directed the 2000 adaptation of the film. She noted that the film doesn’t hold up all that well, but she was happy with the work that she did on it. She’s no longer directing movies: She’s working on a PhD, and works at a small press, and was a delight to speak with, with some really interesting insights into not only the film, but the story.

Iron Fist… Meh

I finally finished slogging through Netflix’s Iron Fist. I really enjoyed watching Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and I was interested to see how this one would turn out. It’s… definitely at the bottom of the  list when it comes to MCU entries.

The show gained a considerable amount of controversy for its approach to race, which I’m not really going to get into, other than to say that it felt kind of oblivious when it came to that particular topic. My colleague, Kwame Opam, wrote about it better than I could over on The Verge, and I generally agree with his review.  As I noted in my thoughts on Ghost in the Shell, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out a bit more broadly.

One thing that stuck out for me with Iron Fist was just how boring it is. Daredevil did some really spectacular fight scenes, but this should have put that to shame: it’s a show about martial arts! The action was just… lackluster. A good example is this scene, where there’s 56 cuts in 35 seconds, which made the whole thing jittery.

Above all, however, the story was a bit of a mess. It meanders, characters do a ton of really dumb and contradictory things, and Danny Rand’s whole character journey just… doesn’t seem to exist.

It feels as though Marvel didn’t really think the story through, and really break the season into a coherent arc. What would have felt better to me is if Rand was still in training to become the Iron Fist, rather than coming back and seemingly went back to square one, which seems to negate everything he had been before. It feels as though it’s an origin story set after the origin story, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, Defenders will be better when it hits later this summer.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures

This is a cool book I picked up recently: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures, written by the Library of Congress. It’s a cool blend of history and visuals, and if you’re nostalgic at all for the days of the card catalog or even libraries, it’s well worth picking up.

The book alternates between two sections: images of the Library of Congress’s collection, showing off books and their card counterpart, and history.

The history is the most appealing thing for me. It takes the reader through the history of the card catalog, with a broad view of how the library system itself came into being. From the very first Library of Congress to the present, it talks about something that people don’t think about much when it comes to libraries: how an organization … organizes itself, and how that helps steer the mission and purpose of the institution from thereon out. The actual cards are interesting, but it’s the way in which they’re used that’s most fascinating. Now that computers have largely taken over the task of locating books in a library’s collection, understanding that organizational mindset is pretty important. What I found most interesting is that the LoC actually still has their catalog in place, and the cards are still incredibly useful for researchers and librarians.

The Art of Empire: WWII influences in Star Wars – Thursday!

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If you’re in central Vermont this Thursday, stop by the Sullivan Museum & History Center at Norwich University. I’ll be giving a talk called The Art of Empire: WWII influences in Star Wars. I’ll be talking a bit about some of the images and iconography of Nazi Germany, particularly with how it is used for the Empire.

The talk will take place in the museum’s conference room at noon on May 4th, and lunch will be provided! If you can’t make it, there’ll be a livestream set up by the museum. Details can be found here.

Reading vacation

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine talked about how she had gotten away for a ‘Reading Vacation’. The idea sounded glorious, and between February and March, I realized that I was in a bit of a rut, and needed to take some time to step away from the computer and everything for a while. I’m not good at taking time off; it’s not how my brain works.

When I’m at home, I tend to drift towards the computer and check in on things — news, Facebook, Twitter, rather than doing what I’d rather be doing: reading, writing, walking the dog, and so forth. Fortunately, I’ve got an option: my parents own a house way up in upstate New York. Not the NYC version of Upstate (between Albany and NYC), but the actual upstate. Miles from the Canadian Border. The nearest store is half an hour’s drive, and it takes at least two hours to get up there, driving through fairly rural territory. Best of all, there’s no internet, or even cell service.

So, I packed up the car: a trip to the grocery store to get food for a couple of days. Clothes. Salt, in case the driveway was iced over (I’m in dire need of new snow tires). A bucket of dog food. The dog. My laptop. A small pile of books. A couple of audiobooks for the drive. We set off.

I’ve written about the books that I get here in the house, and I always feel as though I have an insurmountable reading list. Case in point, I had a couple of books that I’d had for ages that I just didn’t get around to reading to hit the on-sale date for review. I polished off Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers on the drive up, as well as the podcast S-Town.

I packed along Kim Stanley Robinson’s amazing novel New York 2140as well as its audiobook. When Tiki and I went out for a walk, I listened to a chapter in each direction, and picked up the book later. I also brought along Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn, and was sucked right back into the Star Wars universe in a way that I haven’t been in over a decade. Brian Staveley’s Skullsworn, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide. Between them all, I think I read nearly 900 pages.

The area the house sits in is pretty desolate, all summer cottages and lake homes that are occupied a couple of months out of the year. Cars zipped by the highway, but I only saw a couple of neighbors down the road in quick glimpses, like the deer that forged paths in the deep snow in the woods around the place. Most of all, it was quiet. No distractions. I lounged on the couch, reading chapters at a time, or worked on a long-simmering writing project, finally making some headway. I cleaned the floors, organized the books and cooked when I needed a break from words. Tiki and I went on long walks up and down the back roads, looking for deer.

I think what I needed was the solitude. Just some time to get away from everyone and everything. It was refreshing to sit by myself, or to walk alone, knowing that there’s nobody around for miles. I’m already trying to figure out when I can go back.

 

Ghost in the Shell … meh.

I finally caught Ghost in the Shell at our local theater. It’s *shrug*. It’s got an amazingly pretty design and visuals — the props and world is stunning, which pleased me, because I was pretty much prepared to enjoy this film as eye candy. The story was run of the mill action / betrayal thriller. Scarlett Johansson was fine.
I’ve never seen the original anime, so I don’t have a baseline to compare the story against. It’s basic. Heroine is enhanced to carry out mission, discovers that she’s been snatched away due to nefarious super-corporation, turns on them and gets revenge. No surprises there. It’s an accessible film that I enjoyed for the most part.
The two things that bothered me about this, though. The film felt like it should have been so much more interesting, visually. Not the design, but the actual camera work. Anime has had a really neat influence on film: just look at what The Matrix did. Animation can do so much more than live action because of its medium, and extensive CGI now frees up live action film to do so much more.  I was hoping that the film would do more than just dramatic slow motions, and that the action scenes would be a bit more dramatic or interesting to watch. That it was sort of dull to watch is a crime in and of itself. I guess that’s what you get when you put the guy who directed Snow White and the Huntsman behind the camera.
Secondly, the whitewashing thing? I think that if they hadn’t explicitly made it a plot point, it probably would have been okay. It would still be a problem — hiring a caucasian actress for the role should have been thought out a bit more. That it was a point integrated into the story itself made it feel as though they realized it would be a problem, and didn’t actually do the one thing they could have done to fix it. Given how the movie has been bombing, it’s pretty clear they overestimated Johansson’s star power and underestimated the negative press they got. At least they have an easy out if this ever gets a sequel: just recast Johansson by saying that she gets a new body.
It’s interesting to see just how this has been playing out, especially so soon after Marvel’s Netflix show Iron Fist rightly earned wide-spread criticism for exactly the same reasons. They underestimated the flurry of negativity that the show earned, but also put together an incredibly dull show. For a story about martial arts, it should have outdone Daredevil by a country mile.
Hopefully, studios will actually pay a bit more attention to this sort of thing moving forward. At least they’re owning up to the problems this time.

Q&A with John Scalzi

I have a new long read up on The Verge. Back in February, I flew down to New York City, where I got to check out our new offices, get some face time with some of my co-workers, and got to sit down with science fiction author John Scalzi.

I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, and interviewed him one other time for The Verge. This was a formalish interview that lasted for quite a while, and ended up with a nice, in-depth profile of him. It was a fun chat, one that hangs on the fact that his new novel, The Collapsing Empire, just hit bookstores. It’s a fun read (the interview and the book), and I recommend checking it out.

The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper

I’ve got a new column up on Kirkus Reviews this morning. This week, I’m looking at the career of H. Beam Piper, a science fiction writer who was active between the 1940s and 1960s, famously known for a book called Little Fuzzy.

I first came across Little Fuzzy because of John Scalzi’s reboot, Fuzzy Nation. (My review is here  — given that I wrote it six years ago, I’m a little afraid of how terrible my writing was) Before Scalzi’s novel came out, I picked up Piper’s, (it’s in the public domain, so it’s a free ebook) and found it to be an interesting read. Scalzi takes the story in a different direction, but both are well worth picking up and reading.

Go read The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Mike Ashley. Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 – 1980. Ashley’s book, as always, is an exhaustive, interesting read into the history of the genre, and provides some good background on the time that Piper was writing.
  • John Carr. H. Beam Piper: A Biography. This is an exhaustive resource on Piper and his work. Carr goes in detail, often day by day, talks to friends and family, examines letters, and so forth.
  • Paul Carter. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. Carter’s book provides some good background and a couple of interesting points on Piper’s career.
  • Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Roberts provides some good background on where Piper fit into the larger history of SF.