Book Review: Autonomous

Autonomous
By Annalee Newitz

My Edition:
ARC paperback, 301 pages
2017, Tor
ISBN: 9780765392007 (hardcover)

I received this book (and a sweet-ass Lego figure!) for free from Tor in exchange for an honest review.

Jack is a pirate who sells black market drugs in order to afford to produce expensive medications that she gives away to those who can’t afford them. Threezed is an indentured on the run and soon finds himself in Jack’s submarine. Paladin is a newly minted, and indentured, bot on his first mission with his new and alluring partner, Eliasz, to hunt down Jack. Medea is an autonomous bot who discovers some deadly side effects of a new drug that Jack might have had a hand in. As they circle each other and draw near, it’s clear these characters have more in common then they realize.

Another book that’s ultra-challenging to blurb – there’s so much I want to talk about, but so much you just need to read! I’m a total dink for leaving this book in my review pile for so long because it’s fantastic and deep and exciting and full of biting social commentary (probably more than I picked up on.)

Newitz hooked me right away with a marvelous dedication: For all the robots who question their programming.

Finally! A woman after my own synthetic heart!

I really have no idea where to start talking about this book – there’s so much going on and so much to enjoy. I guess I’ll start with the world.

Future! –insert Squidward curled up on his back gif here-

In this future, there’s an array of fantastic tech, like perimeter systems for your body that lie invisibly over your skin and can shock people and such, moving tattoos, robotic body parts and other mods (there’s a character who declares he makes custom penises – that’s right folks, welcome to the real future!) There are self-driving cars, motes of internet in the air (I’ll admit, I really didn’t grasp that bit) and almost anything can be 3-d printed. Jack even has a knife with an algorithm (boy, do I really hate those) that can target certain people!

That might sound pretty sweet, but this world has its downsides too. For instance, medicines are patented and unless you can afford to buy the patent you’re S.O.L. Enter Jack, the pirate who steals and reverse engineers medicines and drugs so that she can sell the drugs on the black market in order to give the medicines away for free (a modern day Robin Hood, if you will). If we thought the healthcare system was built for profit now, it’s got nothing on this version of the future.

In addition to pharmaceutical patents, there are franchises. No, not the kind we have now where you can buy your own McDonalds. You buy a franchise to essentially buy your freedom. Jack’s father bought franchises for his children so that they would be allowed to live, work and even attend school in certain regions. Parents who can’t afford a franchise watch as their children are indentured after a certain age. Depending on the contract, the indentured may not live to gain their freedom (this aspect also speaks to the autonomy theme of the book.)

Speaking of the indentured, most of the robots are “born” indentured. This is a rather significant part of the plot, as not everyone believes a bot should start their life that way. Most bots never finish their contract, despite ten-year limits. In theory, once their contract is finished, a robot can gain an autonomy key. I could probably write a book’s worth of thoughts on all this, but it’s better if you just read this book.

I love the depth Newitz gives to the robots though. There’s a robot who was born autonomous, raised by humans and attended medical school. There’s a robot with a human brain used solely for image processing. There are gender-swaps, despite robots really being non-gendered. There are different levels of bot intelligence and autonomy too. They feel like real characters and I love them.

Look, I could go on forever, but it wouldn’t be eloquent (not that anything prior to this has been), so I’ll just say this book was really fantastic. Before I wrap up, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“He’s an outsider, too. Everybody is an outsider, if you look deep enough.”

If you enjoy medical sci-fi (a la Mira Grant’s Parasitology trilogy) and awesome robots with deep personalities (a la C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust) with a dash of found family (a la Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series) then I think you’ll enjoy Autonomous. I, for one, can’t wait for more fiction from Newitz and sincerely hope we see more of these characters.

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