TBR Challenge: Autonomous, Annalee Newitz
Disclaimer: Everyone has different tastes and milage may vary within those tastes. My opinions about a book are not a reflection on the book itself but rather my relationship to it
I really love Autonomous, the debut novel by Annalee Newitz - I can't believe I've had it on my shelf for two years and didn't read it sooner!
So, what's it about? Jack is a pirate who reverse-engineers medicinal drugs to distribute them to the poorest in society for free. To support her virtuous work, she also reverse-engineers party drugs which she sells. Unfortunately, her latest reverse engineered party drug is killing people. Jack needs to find out why and, crucially, how it can be stopped.
Hot on her heels are two IPC agents, Eliasz, a human, and Palladin, a military robot. They have been charged with bringing the infamous pirate Jack to justice and will stop at nothing to see their mission successfully completed.
What makes this book so wonderful is the depth of characters and the frankly only-just-not-science-fact element of bioengineering and pharmaceutical control. Jack soon finds out that the drug she reverse-engineered, a concentration enhancer called Zaxy, was faulty to begin with. The Big Pharma company that made it, Zacuity, was exempt from various safety trials due to their status. However, people are becoming addicted to their work to the point of death and – naturally – danger to others. A particularly memorable incident involves a person working for the rail network suddenly going into overdrive (ha ha) and changing all the routes, resulting in a number of deaths due to crashes.
However, this very real and frightening set-up is only the backdrop to a larger question faced by the characters: what is freedom in a world where everything has been commodified? Those of you who've read my novel In The Slip will know why I love this book! These kinds of big questions can be challenging to handle, though, and can often lead to a novel that reads more like a textbook. For me, if I want to read a novel, I want to escape, not study. The way Annalee weaves their characters' worlds, histories, and personalities into their story is so subtly done that it doesn't jar at all.
Cases in point (and my two favourite characters) are Palladin, the military bot, and Threezed, an escaped slave, or 'indentured worker' as they are known in this universe. Both Palladin and Threezed struggle with the fact that they are not meant to question the roles they have been born into, and yet they both do. For Threezed, this results in him being standoffish, his personality veering from desperately aloof to clingy in the span of a conversation. Which makes sense. He was born into indenture and grew up knowing what kind of life a good looking, young, indentured boy/man could look forward to. His reaction to finally finding himself free from that fate and surrounded by people who actually care about his wellbeing is, for my money, bang on the nose.
Palladin is a different story altogether, despite them being in the same situation. Palladin has been online only a few weeks before their mission begins to capture Jack, and the first human they have any real contact with seems insistent on treating them like a person – even to the extent of wanting a sexual/romantic relationship. Palladin seeks out numerous answers to A, why Eliasz is treating them that way, and B, why Palladin feels drawn to him in return. Palladin's journey of self-discovery, trying to untangle what is their programming and what might actually be them, is an excellent foil to the journeys the other characters are facing, albeit written in bold text due to their nature as a bot.
Annalee has clearly researched bioengineering, international law, and how 'indentured' humans (and bots!) could feasibly become a real thing in a capitalistic society. And, my word!, it shows in the quality of the writing and the ease of the storytelling.
A definite Happy To Have Finally Read This One from me!
Next book on the TBR Challenge: Patterns of the Fantastic, edited by Donald M. Hassler.
Here are links to Amazon UK (left) and Amazon USA (right) if you would like to grab a copy for yourself. These are affiliate links which means I get a small percentage if you choose to buy. You don't pay anything extra! It's just a bonus from Amazon to me for recommending the book. These little bonus can be very helpdul!