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Annalee Newitz - AutonomousWhat do you get when someone deeply embedded in the Now, the discussions around our online culture, about our electronic rights, about where we are and where we are heading, and who has published copiously on these topics previously writes a work of fiction? The answer, for very good (and maybe even obvious?) reasons is with a cracker of a novel playing on exactly these topics - here is someone who knows what they are talking about, and who is telling us about what she feels we need to think of for the future.

Annalee Newitz is a journalist who writes about the cultural impact of science and technology, the former editor at iO9 and Gizmodo, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and currently the Tech Culture Editor for Ars Technica. Besides all her online and magazine work she has 6 non-fiction books to her name, now followed by her first novel, Autonomous.

Autonomous is a story about bots, about ownership, and about self-image and self-determination. Or, alternatively, about business, intellectual property, and the protection of investment; including the question of what is socially, ethically, and morally acceptable (or can be got away with, at least).
The story, set in a 2144 which is surprisingly recognisable, follows two main protagonists - firstly Jack, a designer drug pirate who travels in a stealth submarine, and distributes free drugs to the needy who cannot afford them; and secondly Paladin, a bird-like bot, freshly become incorporated and thus indentured to the African Federation, who now is set to work for the IPC to track down patent violations. You see, this world is nominally run by a small number of power blocks, but all the more so by ever-mightier corporations, who more or less can flaunt the law as they wish in the protection of their interests; we witness some events involving violence I found rather unpalatable, but apparently quite accepted as fait accompli by society.
Jack has a problem though - one of the drugs she reverse-engineered, has had produced, and sold to pay for her charitable work belonged to a mighty corporation called Zacity, and has a flaw - it does not just make work much more enjoyable and desirable to do (as it is designed to), it makes the user dependent on continuing to do it to the exclusion of everything else - to their death. And Zacity will do anything to keep this from becoming common knowledge.

I guess you can see how Jack’s path intersects with Paladin’s... the surface story of Paladin's (and his human handler Eliaz') tracking down of Jack via her contacts runs against a heavy undertow of patent law, corporate malfeasance, and IP conflicts, including Corporate interests vs Public Good (as always it goes the way of the money, you will not be surprised to hear).

The world this is set in was surprisingly similar to ours, given the 100+ years that have elapsed, but it has a number of interesting features. Society now allows indenture - for bots, as there is a cost involved in creating them, and combining their AI with a human brain (for the bits AI is still no good at like facial recognition - ?); but also for humans who have fallen on hard times (there is opposition to that part, still). The world is entirely connected via atmospheric ‘motes’ providing near-universal network access, even if you still get localised bandwidth constraints (!), but this also leads to a near-panopticon society, with some interesting gaps in application.
We also see how this world now feeds itself, and the changes to the environment (they arrive in Iqualut on the Baffin Islands where the temperature is 20 degrees! As I write this they are at -28...).

The story is told in short bursts, following a specific protagonist/thread each, including a number of flashbacks to Jack’s history, explaining how she ended up where/as she is. I found that I was not totally keen on some of the blow-by-blow verbal exchanges, which came across stilted at times; they were a bit better if filtered through Paladin’s more alien perception and frames of reference. Via Paladin we also get to see bot/bot communication, which again felt simplistic, and old-fashioned even for today, never mind the far future…
Other bits a I found jarring and uneven in development/extrapolation was the comparison of the ease of identification and background checks which Paladin performs vs the ease of using pseudonyms and invented backstories for humint - neither the pirates nor other areas, even official ones, really seem to be able to identify known, active IPC agents and bots, for example. The use of text repositories as the main exchange medium also struck me as odd and atavistic.

Overall, despite these weaknesses and quibbles, I found this to be a fascinating book talking about a possible path in terms of copyright and profiteering over common good, and the rights of robots to their own autonomy (something which is explored in variants across the book), never mind their gender (we still struggle with humans as it is!). And about what should be legal, who should define this, and how it can and cannot be enforced.

The book is dedicated to “the robots who question their programming”, which is interesting in itself, and has cover endorsements from both William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, which slightly over-hype the book I felt.
Nevertheless, this is a driving, energetic piece of social SF, and in most parts very well thought out and thought-provoking. Recommended, needless to say.
More Annalee Newitz

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Title: Autonomous
Author: Annalee Newitz
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher: TOR
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: Dec 2017
Review Date: 171229
Pages: 261
Format: ePub
Topic: AI
Topic: Societal Norms


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