Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Hunh. So, okay. This book is super rich in ideas and philosophy and science, and posits a logical extrapolation of capitalism to its vilest ends. The question of autonomy vs indentured servitude, and the heartbreaking necessity in this future of individual (en)franchisement, plus the stranglehold of corporate patents on technology, are all discussed and examined in ways that are persuasively cautionary. As to the characters, I really enjoyed getting to know Med and Threezed and even Krish. I didn’t really care for Jack, despite her being the ostensible heroine of the piece: for someone so passionate about freedom, so hurt by what Krish had done to their creation, she was awfully cavalier about determining Threezed’s future for him. I don’t expect my heroes to be perfect, but I certainly expect a little more growth then the belated realization that Krish hadn’t meant to hurt her all those years ago (also, three months in prison is a bit of a boo-fucking-hoo. Prison is no joke, and her cellmate was something else, but it’s hard to dredge up a lot of sympathy for that short a term.)

And then, hoo-boy, Eliasz and Paladin. Paladin’s journey is fascinating as she discards the identity given to her by her human makers in the course of finding love. The portraiture of Paladin as someone who doesn’t particularly care about her gender identification, and who worries about her autonomy and where her feelings come from, is an excellent deep dive into consciousness and what constitutes personhood vis robotics.

What I did not love was how Paladin shaped her identity primarily to please her homophobic boyfriend. It’s great that she didn’t care either way, but it was unhealthy that she just let him make assumptions about herself in order to fit with his bigoted world view. And that whole passage about transgender identity towards the end was just weird, crammed onto a situation that I, for one, didn’t think at all relevant. Paladin’s change of gender identity has nothing to do with her sense of self but something she assumes simply to put Eliasz at his ease. Equating that to transgender challenges made me deeply uncomfortable.

I also did not appreciate the significance of what had been done to Actin until way after what I thought was a vast overreaction on Paladin’s part. This is both a result of Annalee Newitz’s somewhat indifferent writing style and also, in my opinion, the very weird couching of Paladin and Eliasz as being a couple we should root for while they’re consciously and unquestioningly working for a body that pretty much represents everything evil in this dystopian future. I really feel like the fictionalization is a sort of grudgingly applied candy-coated shell to better transmit the intriguing philosophical concepts; as such, while the ideas are great, the plot is disappointingly flimsy and personal motivations are given short shrift in favor of Big Concepts. Autonomous is one of those books you should read for its intelligence but not, I’m sorry to say, for its odd lack of heart. Tho I wouldn’t be averse to reading more of Med and Threezed: a romantic relationship there would be genuinely interesting given the fact that Threezed isn’t a roaring asshole.

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