Publication Date: 19 September 2017
Publisher: Tor Books
Summary: Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.
On Jack’s trail are an unlikely pair: an emotionally shut-down military agent and his partner, Paladin, a young military robot, who fall in love against all expectations. Autonomous alternates between the activities of Jack and her co-conspirators, and Joe and Paladin, as they all race to stop a bizarre drug epidemic that is tearing apart lives, causing trains to crash, and flooding New York City.
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an open and honest review
What a journey! Autonomous was a heavy book and this review took a while to write because of it. This story builds a beautifully rich world futuristic world of bio-engineering marvels where sentient robotic AIs coexist with humans. Through this story, we follow Jack, a Chinese-Canadian medical pirate attempting to find a cure to a disaster of a drug she’d recently distributed. Attempting to arrest her are Eliasz and Paladin, a human operative and his indentured military robot from the IPC (International Property Coalition), for violation of pharmaceutical patent law.
One of the strongest points of this book is the character development. Jack has an incredibly complicated and rather tragic backstory that’s slowly revealed to the reader. We get to see her progress from a wide-eyed researcher dreaming of making a change in medical IP law to a jaded pharmaceutical pirate. Regardless of whether you agree with her actions, she certainly makes for a compelling main character.
My favorite character, however, was Paladin, the indentured military robot. I’m likely biased towards robots (because robots!), but it was so enjoyable watching it gain worldly experience and grow. Sure, its body is one of a murderous military robot designed to kill people if necessary to complete its objectives (as it does on multiple occasions), but reading from its POV gives such a complex and interesting character. Paladin and Eliasz’s relationship revolves largely around the growing sexual tension between them and while it’s clear Eliasz is in love with Paladin, I found Paladin’s feeling for Eliasz murkier. It seemed Paladin’s originally went along with Eliasz’s interest in part because of its indentured programming, but also part in curiosity of the human emotion bots aren’t programmed to feel. Autonomous offers an interesting take on the differences in human and AI psyche.
One of the best parts of this book was the biopunk science. I loved seeing all the possibilities in bio-engineering play out in this book. There are drugs for every possible want or need, bio-degradable phones and other disposable objects, body mods for wings, vines for hair, etc. I believe there was even a space elevator mentioned in the end. Despite the heavy feature of science, everything is described in direct layman’s terms, making it very easy for a reader not familiar with the field to understand.
Science aside, the other heavy focus of this book was addressing the ethics of human and bot autonomy. Most bots, when created, are indentured for a number of years to one corporation or another to pay off their price of creation. Humans, on the other hand, are not born indentured, but can indenture themselves or have their indenture contract sold for money, shelter, work, etc. For bots, this means they don’t have exclusive access to their memories and programming. For humans, this is akin to slavery. There is one scene in particular that describes a place to buy and sell indentured humans of all types of human, of every skill or trade or even age, being displayed and sold. And the most horrifying part is that some group of people, some time in history, fought for the right for humans to be indentured alongside bots.
While Autonomous never presents a straightforward answer, we see different perspectives on the situation from different characters, and it gives the reader an interesting dilemma to consider.
Perhaps the one weakness of this book was the plot. While it wasn’t necessarily bad, I didn’t have a heavy investment in what would happen in the end, so much as I did just reading about the characters and the world. The climax I felt was rushed and the timing seemed just a little too good to be true. I liked that the author was unafraid of killing off characters and introducing new ones as needed, but given the short span of the book, more time could have been dedicated to expanding the climax at the end.
Overall, this was a thought-provoking near-future science fiction novel that I definitely enjoyed. I rate this book a 5/5.