Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
Synopsis: An indentured military robot and his handler track a pharma-IP pirate across the globe when a reverse-engineered work-productivity drug starts killing people.
Book Review: Yikes, what a shiny mess this is! The novel is so variable in quality and tone, spiking up and diving down in heady rushes, that it feels downright schizophrenic. I need to dive into that, so this review will be a bit long.
On the one hand, there’s some good stuff in here. The robot characters in particular were really interesting. They are convincingly done as minds without human values, where murder and torture don’t elicit even the feeling that they should be difficult or questionable, as long as they’re ordered by an authorized admin. The violence is raw and brutal in its matter-of-factness. There’s a particularly fantastic scene where the military bot is engaged in combat with IP-pirates, guns blazing and blood splattering, while also researching English language usage because he wants to know what his admin meant when he said “I’m not a faggot.” The alternating physical brutality, and curiosity about human relationships and sexuality, makes for amazing juxtaposition.
The novel also highlighted a few things in myself that I now have to ponder. There’s a gender-flip (sorta) midbook. No big deal, gender doesn’t matter, particularly the fake gender of robots. But when I went back to my notes in the first half of the book and found the female character being referred to as “he,” it bothered me. Which I guess means that gender actually does matter, even the fake gender of robots, because why the hell would it bother me if it didn’t really matter? If I hadn’t embraced the gender-classification of this non-human thing and started to associate it with that gender, and then disliked it being misgendered?
It also drew my attention to latent carbon-chauvinism I thought I was free of. When a human who’s been shown to brutally abuse robots is murdered, it took me aback. Like “No, you don’t just go killing humans!” But if that human had been shown to brutally abuse other humans, I woulda been all “Fuck yeah, kill that piece of shit!” So… what’s going on with me, there? I obviously place more moral weight on fictional humans than fictional robots, and that’s worrisome.
But all this is tempered by some serious issues. For starters, in quite a few places the writing is just downright bad. Like, “I’m 14 And This Is Deep” high school fanfic bad. We’re told who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys with basic applause lights like “the keys to this good life are held in the greedy hands of a few corporatons.” And “Was [she] trying to kill herself to make up for what she’d done? Maybe. Probably.” And “maybe […] he would stop asking her to trust him more than she wanted to trust anyone—including herself.” Oh dear lord.
The world and most of the characters in it never come to life either. Everything feels rather flat, and drawn in muted colors, especially at first. In the latter half of the book we start to get some insight into our human character’s personality and backgrounds, and they start to become interesting, but at first they’re just blah. And the world itself doesn’t feel anything like you’d expect. Apparently most of the world lives in slavery most of their lives, but for the most part life seems alright. No one’s that unhappy, society is basically functioning, etc. This has two related effects on our protagonists. Our hero, the pirate, doesn’t feel very heroic. A freedom fighter needs an evil empire to fight against. Lacking that context, she’s just a drug-running criminal. And our villain, the IP-law enforcer, isn’t all that bad. In fact, the novel paints him in a pretty decent light.
Now, I’m all for morally complex characters. I like dark heroes, and I like works that really make you feel the villain’s perspective, and cheer for them. But Autonomous doesn’t do that.
It introduces us to a hero by having her murder someone without much remorse in their introductory scene. It drops a number of hints about her dark, irredeemable past. And then we’re never shown anything bad she did in her past, and she’s painted as a hero for the rest of the novel. She never gets a redemption because it turns out there wasn’t anything she needs redemption from. The novel is OK with that.
It gives us a villain working for the oppressors. He pressures his underling into a deeply disturbing and highly-abusive relationship. The novel doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.
The world is broken and full of slavery, but things are pretty cheerful overall. It feels like a brightly-painted Disney-fied environment. This isn’t done in a southern gothic sort of disturbing way, it just seems we’re not supposed to notice.
I have a theory. Originally, this book was supposed to be much, much darker. It was supposed to be something awesome, like Library at Mount Char, or Best Served Cold. But Newitz was told this would never sell, and if she wanted a contract she’d have to lighten it up, and make it more YA-friendly. So what could have been dark and brooding and great is turned into… this.
I have a second theory. This novel has been rewritten many, many times. Newitz learned a lot during the writing, which is why the latter half is significantly better than the first. It explains why there can be really good writing side by side with really awful drek. But in the churn of all the rewrites and edits, the focus of the story was lost. In the end it feels processed and soulless.
I look forward to Newitz’s next novel, because I think these are problems that can be overcome, particularly with experience. But I don’t think that this novel, as it stands, should have been published. Some gatekeeper was not doing their job, or (per first theory) doing their job very poorly and making the final work worse. And since I can’t recommend something that I don’t think should’ve been published, despite it’s other merits, Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: Boy, it’s hard to say. This was a pretty quick read, and it did have some great parts. And it certainly gave us a LOT to talk about, which is where theories 1 & 2 from above came from. But most of the discussion didn’t center around the themes the novel attempted to raise, because we were distracted by the disjointed prose/world. Some people liked it more than others, and it’s certainly far from the worst thing out there. But when I think of all the really good novels out there, and extremely limited number of novels one can read in a year, I can’t justify telling a book club this is worth the opportunity cost. While it skates the line, I’m going to tip into the Not Recommended on this one. Mildly, though.