Review: “Autonomous” By Annalee Newitz (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from all of the fantasy fiction I’ve been reading recently and read some science fiction instead 🙂

I first heard about Annalee Newitz’s 2017 cyberpunk/biopunk novel “Autonomous” after seeing this online review that likened it to “Blade Runner”. Naturally, I was intrigued.

When I looked the book up online, I found that it had been praised by none other than Neal Stephenson and William Gibson (two of my favourite cyberpunk authors). After reading the online preview chapters, I realised that this was my kind of novel. So, after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I decided to splurge on a new paperback copy of it. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Autonomous”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Autonomous” that I read.

Set in Canada in 2144, pharmaceutical pirate Judith “Jack” Chen is making a smuggling run in her submarine when she happens to spot a news story about a student who has become chemically addicted to homework.

It doesn’t take Jack long to realise that this must be a dangerous undocumented side-effect of the Zaxy Corporation’s unreleased productivity drug Zacuity – a drug that she recently reverse-engineered and replicated for quick cash. But, before Jack’s can think about this too much, her sub’s defence systems alert her to the presence of intruders. Stowaways are trying to steal her drugs!

Meanwhile, International Property Coalition military combat bot Paladin is going through the final stage of training at a desert base. However, soon after the training mission, Paladin is paired with an IPC agent called Eliasz and ordered to track down Jack….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really brilliant. Imagine the style and atmosphere of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“, mixed with the philosophy of movies like “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell”, mixed with the liberal open-mindedness of “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey“, mixed with a bit of the intelligent grittiness of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” and you might get a vague idea of what this novel is like 🙂 Like all great sci-fi novels, this one is also at least 5-10 years ahead of what Hollywood is doing in the sci-fi genre too.

Where do I even start? I suppose that I should talk about the sci-fi elements of this story first. Needless to say, these are all really well-handled. In addition to things like nanotechnology, body-modding, biodegradable phones, stealth kayaks, a programming language called “Adder” (Python, surely) and all sorts of other fascinating background details, all of the technology here seems like an extrapolation from current technology. And, given that the author has worked as an editor for several tech websites, all of this stuff has a real feeling of authenticity to it too.

Seriously, it’s really awesome to see a truly modern cyberpunk novel – which manages to create the same sense of fascination about modern technologies (eg: 3D printing, AI, “smart” drugs etc..) that the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s/1990s created about the internet.

Plus, this novel also tackles all sorts of modern tech topics too (eg: open source software, online privacy, security concerns about the “internet of things”, sex robots etc…). So, yes, this is very much a science fiction novel – in addition to being a rather gripping story too.

The setting and atmosphere of this novel is really interesting too. Whilst it mostly eschews rainy, neon-lit mega cities in favour of more realistic futuristic versions of Canada, Casablanca etc.. it is still very much a cyberpunk novel. In addition to the story’s dystopian world (which includes things like slavery, powerful pharmaceutical corporations etc..), this novel also has the “high tech and low lives” moral ambiguity which is central to the cyberpunk genre. And, given the focus on things like medical chemistry, body modding, cyborgs etc.. it’s also a biopunk novel too 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is really brilliant. This novel’s third-person narration is informal and fast-paced enough to be compelling, amusing, dramatic and intriguing – whilst also being complex enough to give the story a real sense of depth. Like in any good cyberpunk novel, the narration also contains futuristic and scientific jargon that really helps to immerse the reader (whilst also being written in a way where the reader can usually easily understand it from the context).

This brings me on to the characters. Whilst all of the characters can feel very slightly “larger than life” in a really interesting way, they still feel like realistic people who live complicated lives within a complicated world. The story also devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation and flashbacks too – whilst this can slow the story down a bit at times, it really helps to add some depth to the story.

Jack is a former student radical, turned drug pirate, who is trying to sort out the mess she made by selling a defective drug (whilst also trying to take down the corporation who designed the drug). She reluctantly teams up with a liberated slave called Threezed, who is at least somewhat traumatised by his past. In addition to this, she also meets some of her former student friends – some of whom have gone into legal open-source pharmacology instead (which allows the story to explore the merits of open source stuff vs. piracy).

On the other side, Eliasz and Paladin are the kind of brutal, morally-ambiguous “evil detectives” who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a film like “Blade Runner”.

Yet, they are humanised quite a bit in this story – with Eliasz falling in love with Paladin (and trying to reconcile this with the conservative culture inflicted on him when he was younger), and Paladin gradually trying to learn more about both who they are and how humanity works. Seriously, Eliasz is one of the best “I shouldn’t feel sympathy for this character, but somehow I do” characters I’ve seen since Deckard in “Blade Runner”.

In addition to this, the story is also filled with a rather interesting background cast too. The most interesting members of the background cast are probably the autonomous robots, who are basically free robots with human rights etc.. And the robot district of Vancouver, designed by robots for robots is one of the most fascinating settings in the story 🙂

Thematically, this novel is as intelligently complex as you would expect 🙂 In addition to tackling topics like slavery, free will, humanity, unjust laws and capitalism, the story also focuses on topics like open-source technology (as an alternative to piracy) too.

“Autonomous” also includes some really interesting LGBT themes too 🙂 One fascinating element in this story is how both the protagonist (Jack) and the antagonist (Eliasz) are bi – but, whilst Jack is completely at ease with this part of herself, Eliasz is racked with anxieties, repression and old prejudices about his feelings for Paladin.

In addition to being a subtle commentary about how modern culture views male and female bisexuality differently, it also shows the psychological damage that growing up in ultra-conservative surroundings (a religious part of Poland in Eliasz’s case) can sometimes cause. This element of the story also helps to emphasise the contrast between the free, open and bohemian world of the pharma pirates and the authoritarian, repressive, regimented world of the IPC.

Plus, the subject of Paladin’s gender is handled in a really interesting way too. For starters, Paladin doesn’t even think about this topic until Eliasz mentions it. Paladin is a robot with a male-looking exterior who later discovers that their organic brain (which is only used as a graphics/facial recognition processor, and doesn’t hold memories) came from a female donor.

Eliasz is eager to see Paladin as female once he learns this (in order to quell his own anxieties), and Paladin goes along with this (even after the organic brain is later destroyed in combat) even though Paladin doesn’t really seem to feel innately male or female. This external imposition of gender links into the novel’s themes of free will, authoritarianism etc.. whilst also emphasising that gender resides in a being’s mind/consciousness rather than the physical body/physical brain.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. “Autonomous” is a lean and efficient 291 pages in length, which is a wonderful rarity in both modern novels and cyberpunk novels 🙂 Seriously, it’s always cool to see a modern novel that isn’t a gigantic tome 🙂 In terms of pacing, this novel is reasonably good too. Although the character-based flashback scenes do slow the novel down a bit occasionally, it is mostly a rather fast-paced and compelling thriller story.

All in all, this novel is absolutely awesome 🙂 It’s a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric modern cyberpunk novel 🙂 2017 was a bit of a renaissance for the cyberpunk genre (eg: “Blade Runner 2049”, the US remake of “Ghost In The Shell” etc..) but “Autonomous” is one of the very few things from that year I’ve found that genuinely feels like a truly modern continuation of this awesome genre.

So, if you want to see what Hollywood sci-fi movies will probably look like in a decade’s time, then this novel is well worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

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