Novel: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz makes an impressive debut with Autonomous (2017), an eyeball-kicky vision of the future that wrestles interestingly with the question of volition, both human and artificial. Set over a hundred years in the future, it follows Judith “Jack” Chen, a rogue scientist whose mission is to reverse engineer patented pharmaceuticals and make them more widely available to the needy, in a world dominated by draconian IP laws. Jack learns that her most recent drug hack, for a productivity pill called Zacuity, is highly addictive and causing severe, tragic overdoses. Feeling responsible, she determines to get the word out and reaches out to old friends in the hopes of developing a cure. But her actions have gained the attention of the big pharma companies, who send a team to track down and neutralize her: IP agent Eliasz and an indentured robot named Paladin. As Jack races to accomplish her goal, Eliasz and Paladin journey the globe tracking her down through a network of old connections—all the while developing a complex, unexpected relationship.

Newitz has an accessible, upbeat voice that reminded me of the creative, zany energy of Rudy Rucker. It’s a style that serves the inventive world-building well, and while the narrative occasionally felt a bit detached—too interested, perhaps, in ideas at the expense of pure storytelling—overall it’s a compelling, thought-provoking read, drawing interesting parallels between the programmatic servitude of artificial beings and the systemic, socially engineered version of servitude that humans inflict upon each other. An accomplished debut from an exciting new writer.

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