Brief review of “Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech.

Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago), has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s “I, Robot”) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book “Change Agent”).

Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that give drugs away.

Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family.

The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot McGuffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was still satisfying.

This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.

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