BOOK REVIEW: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Artificial Intelligence is clearly on our minds right now, more than ever before. In television, HBO’s Westworld, now in its second season, probes deep philosophical questions of moral choice and what defines humanity in a world where increasingly nothing is “real”. In the realm of video-games, Detroit: Become Human similarly engages with the emerging complexity and humanity of computers and androids. Autonomous, then, is not only an intriguing novel, but a timely one. Published by Orbit earlier this year (2018), Autonomous is set in a future world (the twenty-second century) in which bio-tech and androids have reached mind-blowing levels of sophistication. Yet, with all the extravagant technology in this novel, enough to make technophiles drool, there is a strong current of realism. You feel as though the technology is all grounded in the cutting edge research of today: nano-tech, 3D printing, bio-grafting, cloning, genetic manipulation – it could all be achievable two hundred years from now. This is not Space Opera, this is true Science Fiction.

The action revolves around Jack, real name Judith Chen, who is a drugs pirate. She reverse engineers drugs made by corporates and then gives them away to those in need for free. Unfortunately, she has just screwed up: one of the drugs that she has cloned has highly addictive properties and is driving people insane. The corporate, Zaxy, is responsible for the addictive property, but now Jack has let the cat out of the bag, they will stop at nothing to bring her down. Enter Eliasz, a Polish military operative, and his partner Paladin, a sophisticated military-grade bot. Paladin is by far the most interesting character in the novel. He goes on a journey of self-discovery as he begins to test the boundaries of his programming and understand what really defines him as a person. Through this lens, Annalee Newitz can explore all kinds of human dichotomies, such as gender, body dysmorphia, and more. Paladin’s thought patterns are intriguingly machine-like, but flecked with odd moments of seemingly autonomous thought. From what little I know of coding, I think Annalee Newitz has absolutely nailed how machines communicate, with one another, and with their human users.

The novel puts the reader in a tough spot, because we sympathise with Jack – who is trying to rectify the mistake she has made – but we also route heavily for Paladin and Eliasz. As the novel heads towards a climax between the two parties, you feel torn about whose flag you will be waving.  This, unfortunately, is also where I must draw attention to some of my criticisms of the book.  Whilst there are undoubtedly some wonderful and memorable scenes, the ending does not deliver on what it promises. To my mind, it does not really “end”, merely peter out. The confrontation I have alluded to takes place of a fashion, but there is no real resolution to it, and the characters are left either mooning over one another or right back where they started, which is quite deeply unsatisfying considering the dramatic events which have occurred earlier in the book.

It is possible Autonomous is angling for sequel territory, leaving some elements open, which I have nothing against. But a resolution must stand alone. To give an example: Leviathan Wakes, the masterful Space Opera by James S. A. Corey, achieved this balance perfectly. The novel leaves plenty open, having kicked off The Expanse series (which has run to six books at least now and launched a television show), yet still reaches a denouement that is cathartic and satisfying. Anotehr problem is that there is a lot of late info-dumping in Autonomous to get to this end. Seventy percent the way through the novel we discover one of the characters has been writing a journal about their experience which proves key to various factions coming together; in my view, this is far too late to introduce something so plot critical.

Autonomous is a book full of radical ideas about our future, and for that it is to be commended. Neal Stephenson said of this book: “Autonomous is to biotech & AI what Neuromancer was to the internet”, and to some extent I’d agree. The only difference is that Neuromancer also worked as a mythical story, and its narrative was tighter. Using the technological framework of cyberspace, William Gibson drew a mythical landscape and created a mythical hero, which includes a terrifying descent into hell at the end (which Christopher Nolan stole for the “unconscious” realm of collapsing skyscrapers in Inception). Neuromancer works as a story, with warm, rich characters, and the technological commentary rightly takes second place to that. Autonomous, one feels, has its eyes on the glittering tech.

This leads to another point: While Annalee Newitz admirably critiques capitalism and the way our lives are increasingly “owned”, as well as dealing with issues such as future slavery and corrupt law-enforcement, there is still always a pervading sense that science is one day going to fix all our problems. Whilst Gibson, in writing Neuromancer, perceived the many gains and opportunities of technology, he never lost sight of the dangers it posed: to our morality, to our sense of self, to our identity. I’m not saying that Annalee Newitxz should have re-written Neuromancer. She has written something new, and pretty original, which is a tremendous achievement. However, I think there is a conflict at the heart of this novel between optimism and realism. She does explore how Paladin’s thoughts are not his own, and how awful that might be, yet at the end one line of added code solves that problem. She does explore how corrupt big pharmaceutical corporations monopolise human suffering, but then a few university geeks in a lab, with zero funding, fix the issue overnight.

On a positive note, Annalee Newitz really captures the experience of working collaboratively on a project with like-minded creators; during the lab scenes, I found myself transported back to my own university experience, and those long shifts fuelled by caffeine and hope. The supporting cast of this novel are intriguing and nuanced, but towards the end they almost overshadow the main characters, particularly Jack, who is seemingly forgotten for the last twenty percent of the book only to be picked up at the end. In a way, this novel could have done with being ten to twenty thousand words longer, with a little more develop of Jack and Eliasz, and then the balance might have been just right. As it stands, it is frustrating to follow a compelling character like Jack, only for her to be relegated at the end. It was almost as if the author was more interested in her cybernetic cast, which I don’t blame her for, but it does show and make some of the humans in the story seem a little thin by comparison.

I’ve been very critical of Autonomous, but that is not because it is a “bad” book, more likely because it was so close to being mind-blowing. And maybe it still is, for another reader. There is so much in this book to be commended: its pacing, its characters, its ideas. I genuinely feel like I have learned about our future as a species. I’d be intrigued to read more by Annalee Newitz; she is surely a writer to be reckoned with in years to come.

Autonomous is published by Orbit and is available here.

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Annalee Newitz

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Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor and author of both fiction and non-fiction. She is the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from MIT, and has written for Popular ScienceWired and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She co-founded the science fiction website io9 and served as editor-in-chief from 2008-2015, and subsequently edited Gizmodo. As of 2016, she is tech culture editor at the technology site Ars Technica.

Reviewed by Joseph Sale

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