Autonomous by Annalee Newitz is getting a lot of buzz this fall and I wanted to check it out so I ordered a copy through my library system. I’ve recently listened to 3 different podcasts interviewing Newitz before reading this, so I was excited to start. My first impression of Autonomous, about 30 pages in, was that I felt that Newitz’s writing was a little dry. I’ll be honest, I had a hard time paying attention to the story at first. I realized that this is a book that I’m going to have to sit down outside my home and read. When I struggle to get into a book or I just want to read a ton during one day I’ll go to a library and just read for hours. That is what I did with Autonomous and it really helped me become more engaged with the story.
The story follows a female pirate named Jack that sells knock-off drugs to people that can’t afford the real deal. In this future, the world is controlled by corporations, and slavery has returned in the form of indentured robots and humans. Basically, robots got their rights to be treated like humans, and if robots could be slaves, then they made the logic leap that the poor humans can become indentured workers too. Anyway, Jack steals a new drug that heightens productivity to sell to the masses but finds out that the drug is so addictive that people are dying from it. In order to stop this drug from killing more people a military agent called Eliasz, and his new robot partner, Paladin, must find and stop Jack.
Newitz weaves this incredible backdrop of social and economic change in the United States/Canada that is highly imaginative. What she is proposing is super scary to think about actually happening but you can see the logic leaps she has taken to get to her world-building. At times I had to turn my hopefulness off because I was getting a bit upset that indentured servitude would become a thing again. That is the thing about Autonomous, it is close enough to our present day, the actions we are currently taking, to scare the reader into wondering if this world that Newitz describes can actually happen. I would have to say, that dystopian books don’t really bother me, but this book’s grim future was too close to a possible truth, that it really made me think.
I loved Jack, I loved her backstory most of all. Showing her ordeals with past lovers, business partners, and friends, gave her such a great well-rounded character. The slave she rescues, Threezed, was such a complex character with trust issues that was fascinating to read about. Med was a fantastic bot that showed true compassion in times of need and the loyalty of Jack’s old friends were impressive. Her storyline was easily my favorite part of the story.
The part in the story I struggled with was the Paladin and Eliasz storyline. Even though I really liked the gender ideas when it came to Paladin’s non-gendered self, I was never sold on Eliasz as a character. I just didn’t get Eliasz falling in love with a military bot. It isn’t like Paladin looked like a person, it was basically a mech walking around. I can be open-minded a lot of the times when it comes to science fiction but I didn’t get Eliasz’s physical attraction to Paladin. It would have made more sense if there was more of an emotional connection before the physical one but there wasn’t. Also, how can Paladin constantly be taking blood from Eliasz when Paladin touches him? I don’t know, this relationship just didn’t work for me much because there wasn’t enough deep conversation between the two until after they talk about their attraction to each other.
I liked Autonomous, I think I was smart to read it in large chunks because I would have struggled if I didn’t. This is a good book and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won some awards next year. I just never felt like I was actually enjoying my reading thoroughly. At times I felt I was reading just to learn more about the world and not about the characters. It can definitely be noticed that Newitz is mostly a nonfiction writer in my opinion because the concrete things were really solid in this story but the intangible things were lacking.
13/25 Possible Score
2/5 – Plot
2/5 – Characters
4/5 – World Building
3/5 – Writing Style
2/5 – Heart & Mind Aspect