Autonomous was like Newitz looked deep into my heart and wrote me a book. Seriously, that’s how it feels. Autonomous was a superb intellectual book – discussing questions of gendered robots and autonomous humans – but also an entertaining and fast-paced read. I kept pushing myself to get to the next chapter, and finished it in no time.
Jack is a pirate. She doesn’t steal cargo from other submarines, but she does live on a ship. Judith is a pharmaceutical pirate. Notoriously anti-patent, Judith performs reverse engineering on drugs that poor people need, and cannot afford, and manufactures them to give them away. But everything comes at a price. To pay for her Robin Hood deeds, she sometimes needs to sell other drugs. Her latest sale turns backwards when it turns out the drug she has reverse engineered has disastrous and life-threatening consequences. However, the fault lies with the drug itself and now Jack is determined to bring them to justice. But on her heels, are two international property enforcers: Paladin, a military robot, and his partner. And they will stop at nothing to track her down.
What struck me first was the dedication: For all the robots who question their programming. From then on I was hooked, like a fish on the line. Newitz’s world is full of biotechnology, corporate control, and autonomous robots. It is vivid, detailed, and almost like something from my wildest dreams. Newitz does a fantastic job at giving us information that does not feel rushed, or dumped on us, but instead revealed when we need it, and in an unhurried manner.
Plot & Characters
But before I get to what I loved the most: the intellectual themes, I want to talk about the plot and characters. The plot is intense. There is murder, subterfuge, and fugitives on the run. But there is also a tender love story. Full of constant surprises and twists, the plot will not fail to surprise you. My favorite character has to have been Jack, one of the main characters, because Newitz spends such time describing Jack’s history and motivations in detail. It felt like I truly knew Jack by the end. I found a sense of admiration in Jack – almost like a path not followed. Having done my own activism in the day, for me Jack could have been my role model. She was unafraid to stand up for what was right and extremely passionate until the very last page. There was something nostalgic and cathartic in reading her story. And it was one of the very first ways that this book touched something within my heart.
But the coup de grace of my love story with Autonomous was its exploration of the gendered, or lack of gender, robots and the masterful writing of Newitz. The robots have no gender, and many of them have sexual organs built, based on their purpose. This means that any pronouns that humans attach to them are based on their ‘anthropomorhizing’, and their perceptions of their gender expression. What I mean by that is, Paladin is a pretty heavily built armored military robot. But because of this, Paladin happens to be called ‘he’. What Newitz also does brilliantly is let us be narrated about Paladin’s experiences from their perspective. We are not reading about a passive robot, but actively exploring Paladin’s experiences as they learn new things about gender, sexuality, and humans – especially as they fall in love. I cannot talk about it more without spoiling it, but it is an amazing thing to read with nuance and depth.
And furthermore, Newitz deals with the subject of autonomy with masterful hands – especially as this is her debut novel. There is a finesse to the way the characters mirror each other. For an autonomous robot to meet an indentured human, or for an indentured robot to meet an autonomous one. The interactions between autonomy and imprisonment/servitude are manifold and amazingly intricate. Even looking at the ways in which ‘autonomous’ humans are truly not free is just perfection. The entire theme of autonomy is brilliantly explored. Could I expect anything else? The back of my ARC says: “When anything can be owned, how can we be free?” That question is essential to this book. Please read this, I need to talk to everyone about it.
I was utterly blown away by Autonomous. As in I am still lying on the floor trying to recover, because my brain is just reeling from its depth. My book hangover is real. If you’ve ever wondered about our future with robots, questions of autonomy, or just want a fantastic science fiction book, do yourself a favor and read Autonomous. This is the book you’re looking for.
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the Publisher.
Favorite cyborg novel? I always need recs.
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