Like the title says: autonomy, in all of its permutations, perversions, and absences, is the operative concept in Annalee Newitz’s adept debut novel, Autonomous, a thematically meaty sci-fi thriller set a dozen odd decades (or 20 minutes) into the future, in a not-quite-dystopian landscape in which much of the world has been carved up into economic zones, in lieu of the nation-state. Commerce is run mostly through multinational (or, maybe, multi-zone) corporations in a pervasive system that values property—intellectual, human, robot, and molecular—over just about anything else. Newitz, who cofounded geek haven io9 and penned a work of futurist nonfiction that considers how we’ll survive the mess we’ve made of our planet, has built a 22nd century with the hard hit of something illicit, something that turns the borders wobbly and indistinct, rosy and itchy at the same time. And man, is the comedown hard.
We are introduced first to Jack Chen, cruising her submarine across the mid-Atlantic, ferrying pirated pharmaceuticals of her own creation to the North American zone. Jack started her career in piracy as a true believer, a biotech student railing against the injustice of a patent system that locks cures from all but the wealthiest patients, and floods the market with lifestyle drugs engineered to make a quick buck. (Maybe less than 20 minutes into the future, then.) Jack’s not precisely a the zealot she was anymore—you don’t go from a promising young student to a scarred pirate without facing something harrowing in-between—but she’s still bound by a personal ethical code. So sure, she retroengineers junk lifestyle drugs herself, but only to pay for the more lifesaving kind.
On Jack’s sub, two things happen in rapid succession: she learns a drug she replicated and sold is killing people, and her sub is boarded by the more literal breed of pirate, set on a high seas smash-and-grab to steal her pharmaceutical cargo. She kills the pirate and subdues his indentured slave, and further investigates the bad news of her newly pirated lifestyle drug, ostensibly intended to alleviate the boredom of repetitive tasks, which is instead, when used illicitly, causing who take it to become addicted to whatever boring repetitive task they were looking to make easier in the first place. A man paints his apartment until he drops; a student studies so hard her kidneys give out.
Jack and the stowaway, Threezed—an indentured kid raised by a system of slavery in all but name to be a form of polite, mannered chattel—strike out to stop the spread of this killer drug by exposing the truth about its side-effects, and to engineer a cure. Jack works back through her sources and her past, towing the rudderless Threezed in her wake.
Meanwhile, the International Property Coalition has sent two operatives into the field—a human mercenary named Eliasz and his robot partner, Paladin—to find the source of the pirated drug and eliminate it, along with any potential liability on behalf of the massive corporation responsible. Eliasz and Paladin break knees and socially engineer their way through Jack’s past and present, stalking their target with the ruthless efficiency of those who know they are on the right side of justice.
Though it doesn’t exactly look like it, indentured human Threezed and indentured robot Paladin are the novel’s metaphorical pivot point. In this furute, the legal concept of indenture—a 10-year contract of total servitude—was developed primarily to deal with the question of sentient robots, the idea being that years of labor pay off the resources it takes to create one of them—even a military bot like Paladin, who came online only months before the novel begins. Once indenture was enshrined in law, it spread to humans, because of course it did.
A number of people mouth the pabulum that humans only choose indenture as adults—fully autonomous entities—but Threezed’s life story puts the lie to this: sold as a child by impoverished parents to an indenture school, taught enough to be useful to a potential buyer, sold again when he came of age. And sold, and sold, and sold. By the time Jack kills his master, Threezed doesn’t know how to treat her as anything but another one, someone to appease through sex and servitude. He’s been programmed as surely as any robot.
Though human and robot are at different ends of their indenture—Threezed is tired, calculated, and sarcastic, where Paladin is inquisitive and something like an innocent—they nonetheless have a lot in common. Both are programmed creatures who question their programming as far as they are able, though that may not be as far as they’d like. Both end up in sexual relationships with their masters/mentors—people they are not precisely bound to, but are nonetheless personally consuming figures to one trained in servitude. Paladin’s relationship with their handler, the mercenary Eliasz, hinges on what Eliasz perceives to be Paladin’s gender: male at first, as naturally all military robots are male, then female, once the two learn the human brain Paladin uses to process facial recognition was harvested from a dead female soldier. Paladin perceives gender as an anthropomorphized construct, but accedes to Eliasz’s need to assign them one. Is this a function of programming, or a real acquiescence?
Similarly, Threezed works to make himself necessary to Jack. She tries to shed him multiple times—to set him up with a franchise, to give him autonomy. But he just can’t believe it. He offers his body, his skills, his very presence to Jack. When she takes him up on some, but not all of it, it confuses him. He can’t quite give consent, because he’s never lived in a world where his consent mattered. “Consent” is something only beings with autonomy, and autonomy is as slippery and imaginary a concept to Threezed as gender is to Paladin. Is this a function of his upbringing, or a real acquiescence?
But now I realize I’ve entirely forgotten to talk much about pharmaceuticals, property rights, or cyberpunk—the three things the book is ostensibly about. Autonomous is such a complex mix of ideas, it’s hard to know where to start, and even harder to keep the discussion confined to just one thing. Reading it, I recalled my experiences with early period Gibson—stuff like Neuromancer or Count Zero, books that blew my mind while driving me to turn pages late into the night, breathless to reach the end. Like a lot of cyberpunk, its ending is Pyrrhic: no hard wins for the good guys, no exact bad guys, nothing but the murk of people in all of their permutations trying to work out the messes they’ve made of their small lives. The vastness of a concept like autonomy rubs up hard against lived lives, makes the concepts smaller and the lives larger.