Autonomous questions Owenership, Binary Assumptions and Autonomy Itself
Reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a deceptively fun experience for lovers of science fiction. From walls embedded with bioluminescent bacterial colonies that can light dark passages to cyborgs that feel touch so acutely that they can detect the distinct ridges of a fingerprint, the world of Autonomous is packed with fantastical biotechnology. Much of the innovation depicted in the novel seems to be just beyond the horizon of our own discernible future.
Protagonist Jack Chen is a charismatic patent pirate with an ideological drive. He is armed with a knife that is as dangerous to humans as it is to machines. However, the notion of an exciting future is immediately and adeptly tarnished as the novel’s dystopian reality sets in.
The Horror of Ownership
The novel builds a lowkey sense of terror with the advent of weaponry so advanced that human life has never been so easily expendable. Newitz writes of an era in which humanity is rigorously bound to the conversion of all things to property. Indentured labor has returned. The worldbuilding packs a steady dose of déjà vu because of how relevant these concepts are in our own reality. Newitz’s storytelling builds a dystopian future forged from the slow, almost imperceptible loss of human rights. Pharmaceutical corporations wield incredible power as their products have become a necessity for competition and survival. Governments around the world submit to these and other major corporations.
Throughout Autonomous, the theme of ownership grows and intersects with a variety of other concepts like identity, autonomy and biology. Pharmaceutical corporations, wielding power without bounds, establish a hold on each of the characters with their potent and vital drugs. One of the most common drugs in Autonomous is Vive, a magic bullet against the aging process that preserves youth both in appearance and dexterity.
Other drugs increase work performance, mental acuity, et cetera. More importantly, there are drugs that exist to combat the waves of frequent plagues continuously ravaging the continents. In short, no one anywhere in this world is without some degree of dependence on the pharmaceutical industry.
The theme of ownership plays out on a personal level as well. Newitz describes Vegas, where humans are sold into indentured servitude, in a kind of cold and matter of fact way that makes its reality brutally clear. In the novel, Newitz describes a blog kept by an indentured person as written in a cold and detached manner, making it even more disturbing for the characters who stumbled upon it. Upward mobility is a fantasy many characters buy into, while the novel’s reality is that this world revolves around infinite accumulation.
An Interactive Definition of Autonomy
Outside of the economic factors of the world Newitz builds, Autonomous asks the reader to consider the meaning of autonomy. If one is indentured and then freed in a culture where work is like a hamster wheel and general well-being depends on a capricious owner class, is anyone really free? The writing portrays figures who both support and work against this system. In the world of Autonomous, nature and technology are intertwined.
They’re playing no favorites and depicting a world where choice is less bound to individual morality and more based around a system where both benevolent and malevolent actions are more or less inevitable.
The author creates parallels repeatedly throughout Autonomous. A human enslaved in a society engineered to maintain social order is no more able to be free than a machine designed to lack autonomy. Can the consent of either really ever be genuine? How much of who we become is predetermined by societal constructs narrowing our choices? Relationships, both in the romantic and general sense, are used to explore the meaning of consent.
In the novel, relationships between androids and humans are common Also, the fusion of biotic components and technology are pronounced. People use biotechnology to engineer vines to graft with their hair and use biotechnology to create other eccentric ornamentations. Leaves merge with glass panes to repair them when they break. This intertwining of the natural and the synthetic is dramatic and life-altering for one of the main characters. This character is a military grade cyborg and, unlike many other androids, was not designed for sexual purposes. They have to navigate the complexity of humans projecting human concepts of gender identity, orientation and attraction onto them.
The story of the non-binary life of a cyborg is something that Newitz writes extremely well. The novel makes no effort to connect the identities of any of the characters to contemporary terminology. Instead, she relays the experiences of each of the characters as unique. Some authors write LGBT+ characters in ways that come across as dry and shallow, as if the contents of a Wikipedia page are their entire knowledge of LGBT+ people. Newitz’s representation is written in a way that feels natural and thoroughly explored.
It’s a Bummer that Autonomous is so Timely
Reading about plagues sweeping across the continents would give the novel a kind of apocalyptic feel, especially as COVID-19 dominates our headlines.Well it would be, if not for the frustrating complacency through which everyone accepts the world as it is. It is almost annoyingly, super freaking relatable. I wouldn’t say that complacency is a central theme of the book, but it is ever-present.
Jack Chen has some flaws that are frustrating to me as a reader, but she’s the most relatable character because of her refusal to accept the status quo and her drive to stick it to The Man. She sees her dystopia for what it is. Viewed through a simplistic lens, the world of Autonomous is convenient and futuristic. Every need is “accessible”, but really just available to those with means. The problem becomes readily clear that the world runs on monopolized abundance. Necessities are not distributed by need, they are withheld in an endless effort to create profitable scarcity.
Ultimately, Autonomous achieves everything that a great cyberpunk novel should. It tells a story of a dystopian sci-fi world and carefully illustrates how the characters are trapped within it and the ways in which they fight against the system. It draws numerous parallels to our own world and provokes thought from the reader. Luckily, the novel doesn’t feature the info dumps science fiction can sometimes suffer from. However, there are moments like the flashbacks that I found myself drifting through. Overall, Autonomous is a compendium of biotech concepts that cyberpunk fans will be sure to enjoy.