“He was a user of his own consciousness, but he did not have owner privileges. As a result, Paladin felt many things without knowing why.”
In 2144 there are canola fields that transmit data. There are drugs to extend your life. There are drugs for just about everything.
In the Arctic Sea, Jack Chen is a pirate in a submarine with her own lab used to fabricate reverse-engineered drugs on the cheap, making them available to everyone... and antagonizing big Pharma in the processes. When people start taking her newest drug, a perfectly replicated version of "Zacuity", a performance-enhancing drug that makes people feel immense pleasure from doing a specific activity. The company primarily uses it to get its own labor force hooked on something very particular: work. And the side effects suck.
“It didn’t just boost your concentration. It made you enjoy work. You couldn’t wait to get back to the keyboard, the breadboard, the gesture table, the lab, the fabber.”
Intense reactions to the drug, altering the human mind and in some cases actually killing them, triggers the main thrust of the story. Jack sets out to research and fabricate a cure and disseminate it before more people die, and before Elias and Paladin, two military agents dispatched to eliminate Jack and facilitate a cover-up find her and take her out. You do not want to mess with patent law in this future.
“When it came to intellectual property, justice was simple and clear.”
Paladin, an indentured robot serving the military, is governed in much the same way A.I generally is in cyberpunk and sci-fi. Freedom in a box; confined to a very particular place in society. Governed because they are a commodity. Labour and manpower and expensive technologies created bots, and so, because of their programming, even to bots this seems fair and right. Indentured humans though, slaves, are not as polarizing. There are rules and laws that must be followed if you have indentured.
“Bots, who cost money, required a period of indenture to make their manufacture worthwhile. No such incentive was required for humans to make other humans.”
Throughout the assignment, Elias and Paladin forge an unconventional relationship. One billed as a love story on the back of the book. Admittedly, my initial, gut reaction to this assertion was that it was the weakest part of the story. It didn't feel earned. And upon further reflection, I think that's in part what the author was going for.
“How many times had Paladin looked into this human face, its features animated by neurological impulse alone? He did not know. Even if he were to sort through his video memories and count them up one by one, he still didn't think he would have the right answer. But after today's mission, human faces would always look different to him. They would remind him of what it felt like to suffer, and to be relieved of suffering.”
Autonomous broaches many preconceptions; some of which lead to the exploration of our incessant need to anthropomorphize everything we interact with. In this particular case, technology and the other things we construct are similar in themes touched on in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and were handled well throughout the fiction.
“Everybody is an outsider, if you go deep enough. The trick is reassuring people that you’re their kind of outsider.”
Elias is overly concerned with making sure Paladin uses pronouns and that those pronouns come from Paladin's brain, not programming—which is not considered important to the makeup of what Paladin considers their identity. Pronouns are useful in so far as they are needed to converse with humans. But bots don't communicate that way and bots often refer to humans as mysterious, trying to figure out why humans do what they do at all; especially regarding identity.
“She was part of a social network that included artists and activists who were always hatching what they called “disruptive strategies” aimed at undermining all forms of authority: cultural, economic, scientific. Mostly their disruptions involved artistic fashion shows full of uselessly beautiful GMOs and tissue mods that said something about global recolonization.”
While Elias and Paladin attempt to find Jack, exerting the will of the system of which Jack fights against with the help of Threezed, an indentured slave freed by Jack, incidentally; they invariably end up finding themselves in an unconventional way. And while Jack and Threezed enlist the help of another, completely autonomous bot named "Med", they too discover components of themselves missing; in some cases merely forgotten.
“The key to autonomy, she realized, was more than root access on the programs that shaped her desires. It was a sense of privacy.”
Flashbacks to Elias and Jack's pasts work well to help the pacing of the story as well as do what this novel does best: world building. The technology, especially biotech is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. It feels well thought out and incremental in such a way that it makes it feel like this is not the 100ish years in the future, but something even closer, just on the peripheral.
“People assigned genders based on behaviors and work roles, often ignoring anatomy. Gender was a form of social recognition.”
It's a quick read with an interesting way to broach anthropomorphization in general, but also what our relationships might look like when such technology does enter our lives. The need to place things in human boxes and terms is an injustice and disservice and is at the root of a lot of social issues. Coupled with where Big Pharma is going, again, this all feels like a good extrapolation of where we could be headed. A pill for everything. The resistance and the "punks" confined to fabricating small victories in the form of a cheaper product, rather than the ability to destabilize the system so much for actual, meaningful change; reflective of the socio-political climate right now.
“But now we know there has been no one great disaster—only the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property.”
Wrapped up in a fairly quick cat-and-mouse game between the respective characters is an impressive amount of world-building, characterization, and social issues that might result from future developmental progress with where technology may be heading. All of the characters served a purpose and were quite well fleshed out, especially for a 300-page book. I generally don't like narratives that often switch between characters but this didn't bother me in Autonomous. 4/5
“For all the robots who question their programming.”