Annalee Newitz

Autonomous

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Autonomous Summary

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Set in the 22nd century, American author and journalist Annalee Newitz’s science fiction novel Autonomous (2017) depicts a dystopian future in which pharmaceuticals can cure almost any disease but are tightly controlled in an ultra-capitalist society. The book also explores themes of artificial intelligence and robot freedom. For Autonomous, Newitz received a nomination for Best Novel at the Nebula Awards.

At the end of the 21st century, the world is remade after a series of plagues devastate the population. Nations’ borders are redrawn into economic zones where the International Property Coalition (IPC) strictly enforces patent and property laws. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical technology has advanced to the point where drugs can cure almost any disease, extend life, and improve mental and physical performance to unforeseen heights. Despite the fact that these drugs are fairly easy and cheap to manufacture, the incredibly strict patent laws that recently emerged make it so only a small number of people can afford them. In response to this, drug piracy emerges in which pirates reverse-engineer patented drugs, distributing them cheaply and illegally to the working class.

Meanwhile, robotic artificial intelligence has also evolved dramatically during the novel’s timeline. Robots are indentured servants working in a number of fields in order to pay off the costs of their own creation. Upon reaching that threshold, these emancipated robots are referred to as “Autonomous,” hence the title of the book.

The novel follows the storylines of two protagonists. The first is Judith “Jack” Chen, an idealistic drug pirate. Although she frequently sells recreational or productivity drugs at a profit, she uses those profits to fund the humanitarian distribution of much-needed medical drugs to those who need them. The second is Paladin, a robot agent working off the cost of his creation at the IPC where he hunts down intellectual property criminals like Jack. Just recently switched “online,” Paladin has a full ten-year contract to work off with the IPC.

Near the beginning of the novel, Jack reverse-engineers a new drug called Zacuity, a mental performance-enhancing drug designed to link a narcotic high to completing productive tasks. However, Jack has no idea how powerful it is. Shortly after distributing it on the black market, she learns that it makes work as addictive as heroin. Students develop debilitating homework addictions. Clerks die of starvation because they won’t do anything but work, not even eat. The pharmaceutical industry denies having prior knowledge of the addictive effects of Zacuity, but Jack believes this is a lie. Driven by her ideals, Jack takes it upon herself to develop a drug therapy capable of curing the addiction. She also works to expose the pharmaceutical industry’s malfeasance and prior knowledge of the drug’s debilitating effects.

Meanwhile, two IPC agents are tasked with hunting down Jack, both to silence her and to punish her for patent piracy. Under the rules of the new economic order, patent pirates can be treated as terrorists and executed by IPC agents on sight without a trial. The two agents chasing Jack are Eliasz and his new robot partner, the aforementioned Paladin. Paladin’s primary directive is as a bodyguard for Eliasz as he navigates the dangerous patent black market looking for Jack. However, despite his efforts to perform his job well so he can earn his freedom, Paladin finds himself much more interested in Eliasz and their budding friendship than in the parameters of their mission. For Eliasz’s part, he finds himself sexually attracted to Paladin. This confuses Eliasz because he believes he is straight, and he perceives Paladin as male. Paladin later informs Eliasz that he is, in fact, genderless. Moreover, Paladin’s “human network” is powered by the brain of a dead soldier who is female. Eliasz and Paladin’s relationship becomes romantic and sexual in nature, which is complicated by the fact that Paladin, as an indentured servant robot, cannot technically provide consent.

While remaining one step ahead of Eliasz and Paladin—who kill numerous pirates in their pursuit of her—Jack develops a cure for Zacuity addiction, distributing it with the help of an emancipated Autonomous robot named Medea Cohen. She also publishes a paper exposing Big Pharma’s role in knowingly manufacturing an addictive drug; however, the corporation responsible for Zacuity removes the paper from all databases, leaving the company’s reputation slightly tarnished but intact. Meanwhile, Eliasz and Paladin, disillusioned by their violent work, quit the IPC to live together on Mars, where people won’t question their relationship.

According to NPR, Autonomous is “a brilliant, fascinating debut, beautifully written and developed.”