Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Autonomous - Annalee Newitz

Autonomous is a stand-alone sci-fi novel by Annalee Newitz. The text explores the meaning of autonomy through several lenses. The first is more abstract – the intellectual. In a world where almost everything appears to be patented and under a corporate aegis, the sense that research can be enacted free of a business agenda is one severely under threat. On a more visceral level, the text also examines a system of indenture, which applies to artificial intelligences, forced to work for a company until they’ve recouped their manufacturing costs. That system is also pervasive in the non-AI community, with people willing (or at least needing) to sell themselves into years-long indenture contracts in order to settle debts, or simply to survive. This is a text which wants to look at notions of ownership, what they mean, and what effects they can have on an individual and social level.

Those are big questions, to be sure, and ones the book explores in a fairly nuanced manner; but while looking at the big questions, Autonomous also knows how to show a reader a good time. There are pirates. Actual pirates, with a submarine. There are combat robots and world weary, noir-esque agents of nebulous authority. There are combat robots with shield-wings who can shoot out your eyeball at a thousand yards, but also ruminate on how much of their responses is enforced by their programming and lack of autonomy. There’s a high stakes chase story in here, and an intimate, layered set of personal relationships which have the sort of raw emotional energy that makes them feel real.

This is a world which has a sense of pervasive ownership about it, and also one which is clearly a near-future of our own. Climate change has broken nation states, and left governments  in an uneasy and often subservient partnership with megacorporations. The businesses are, unsurprisingly, keen to own everything, and charge for everything – and if there’s a cultural pushback against this, a sense that not everything needs to live under the banner of what the market will bear – well, that pushback can be managed by tame governmental agencies, with private armies and a license to kill whilst protecting the rights of their corporate colleagues. It’s a world where nothing is entirely free, whilst also being a recognisable and innovative future. The reader can see the rise of AI in the robotic characters in the text – but the history of their struggle to own themselves, and the sense of ongoing oppression are delicately webbed in the narrative subtext, and plausible in the context of the advances of today. Similarly, the rise of consumer-grade designer drugs, to allow greater stamina, greater intelligence, greater focus – these are clear extrapolations from the modern world. That they’re used by corporations to eke more productivity from their workers, personal benefits secondary to the bottom line, is an equally plausible premise.

That’s the world which Newitz has drawn – one which takes our current state, and moves it forward a few steps. Some of those steps have dystopian accents, and others are reactions against that less-than ideal universe. In any event, this is a world which feels familiar, whilst carrying accents of the vividly weird. It’s also one which thoughtfully approaches the question of ownership – not just in calling for freedom, but in examining the pressures and roots of property and indenture in themselves. It’s a quietly clever book, one which asks the reader to pinder big uestions under its breath, in between the interrogations, gunfire and romance.

From a character standpoint – well, there’s several perspectives. I was particularly drawn to that of Paladin, a recently activated combat AI, struggling to understand their place in the world. Paladin ‘s struggle to understand themselves, humanity and the world around them is written with skill and panache; Paladin’s responses to their circumstances aren’t always even close to the ones the reader might make, but they are equally valid. Newitz has put some serious work in to give us a non-human perspective, and   largely succeeded. There’s a delightful conversation at one stage which calls out the danger of anthropomorphising for both AI and humanity, and it was a sharply observed and clever piece. Paladin struggles not just to be seen as a human, but to be seen as themselves. That they’re a heavily armored, gun-toting war machine as well as their other roles is another matter entirely. That what they feel they want and need may be circumscribed by programming designed to restrain and keep them happy, something else again.

Paladin is paired with Eliasz, an agent of a bureau which enforces intellectual property. Eliasz is a hard-edged professional, though he clearly has his own issues. If Paladin’s autonomy is ring-fenced by programming, Eliasz has his own limits, perhaps slightly less obvious. He’s a witty, intelligent interlocutor, a killed undercover operative, with a long streak of ruthlessness and an absolute willingness to engage in horrifying levels of violence in order to achieve his goals. Autonomous isn’t afraid to give us characters we can empathise with one minute, and be horrified by the next.

Perhaps more sympathetic is Jack, the intellectual property pirate. Jack has a wry cynicism, and an idealism which contrasts nicely with the violent pragmatism of Eliasz and Paladin. Jack works to break the monopoly of pharmaceutical companies, reverse engineering patented medicines in order to disperse them to those unable to afford corporate prices. Unsurprisingly, this puts her in the sights of Eliasz. But Jack has enough problems already. Her history with other researchers is complicated, and her radical views and willingness to break the law make her a mix between a folk hero and a pariah to her colleagues. There may also be a personal catharsis in what she does. Over the course of the book, we learn about the previous life and loves of Jack – and her energy, enthusiasm and raw determination leap out and seize control of every page that she’s on.

Between the agents hunting Jack and Jack herself are a far larger cast of reprobates . From body-modifying graduate students, to indentured servants, from AI that present as moths and have an interest in history, to recreational drug designers, the sheer diversity of individuals on display is dazzling. Each has enough room on the page to feel alive. In this they’re helped by the environs – lavishly described dome cities, tightly guarded military camps, and, yes, submarines.

Autonomous purports to be the story of how Jack investigates why one of her reverse engineered drugs has horrific side effects, and how Eliasz and Paladin attempt to track the notorious pirate down. But it’s not just about that. It’s a love story, as well, and a story about what people decide they should be, and how they may want to be free, and how that freedom expresses itself. There are foot-chases, interrogations steeped in violence and terror, there’s gunfire and redemption. It makes up a rather good thriller. But this is also a book which isn’t afraid to reflect on the big questions, and invite the reader to do the same. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful, multi-layered text, and also an absolutely cracking read. Give it a try!

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