The future is pharma, not free: A review of Annalee Newitz’s debut science fiction novel, Autonomous

Gautham Shenoy June 2, 2018

Earth. Mid-22nd Century (2144 to be exact). The nation-state is a thing of the past. The world is divided into economic zones controlled by big pharma companies. Human rights have been replaced with private contracts and indentured servitude has contributed in no small part to building the world economy. It has been almost a century since artificial intelligence gained sentience, and robots – indistinguishable from humans – are in a constant struggle with humans for jobs and resources. And jobs are pay-to-play because the other option is slavery. Because once the powers-that-be realised that if human-equivalent beings i.e. sentient robots could be indentured (ostensibly to offset the price of building them), so could human beings themselves. People and robots, manufactured products and ideas are all property, mere economic assets. And the only law that’s very actively enforced by the powerful International Property Coalition (IPC) is patent law.

Welcome to the world of Autonomous, the debut science fiction novel by i09 founder editor, science writer and journalist, Annalee Newitz. It’s not a pretty world. Climate change has taken its toll. But Newitz manages, and quite adroitly, to make her story about this world – our future as she’s imagined it – engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Autonomous hits the ground running with no pages or paragraphs wasted.

There’s a new blockbuster drug in the market from one of the biggest pharmaceutical players. Zacuity, a productivity pill guaranteed to make you love your work. Every human resource manager’s dream, Zacuity is a work enhancement drug designed to give the user almost orgasmic satisfaction in slaving away. But Zacuity has a dirty secret. It’s been designed to addictive. And because of that, those who take Zacuity can work themselves to death, literally so.

Enter submarine-based outlaw Judith ‘Jack’ Chen, a scientist-turned-activist-turned-patent-pirate who feels responsible for it, not because she created Zacuity but because she reverse engineered and pirated it for money. Not because she wants the money per se, but because pirating pricey lifestyle drugs helps her subsidise her true mission: pirating essential and/or lifesaving drugs and gene therapies –  that the pharma companies have priced out of reach of the common people and – which she distributes for free. And in the world of Autonomous, some drugs – that enhance health and cognition – are essential for many jobs, without which the not-so-rich person could slip into indenture and take his whole family down into slavery with him.

Left & Centre: Covers of Autonomous. Right: Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous (pic credit: Annalee Newitz. Via the author’s website techsploitation.com)

In true outlaw-with-a-heart tradition, Jack sets out to find a cure for Zacuity, but not before she gets saddled with an indentured slave ‘inherited’ from a thief she killed who’d owned him earlier, and who is known as Threezed because of two characters branded on his skin. Sold as a child to be indentured, and having changed many hands through subsequent sales since, Threezed will do anything to please Jack, by way of sex or servility, for the indentured slave that he is, conditioned (programmed?) since birth. That’s how the world of Autonomous works.

Where there is an outlaw, there has to be an in-law. Bad pun made for the sake of it (blame Witzelsucht). Moving on. Where there is an outlaw, there is law enforcement, hot on his trail. It’s not too late before the powerful IPC gets wind of Zacuity being pirated, and will do anything to put the person behind it out of commission (read execution). Not just because Jack could reveal Zacuity’s secret, and put its manufacturer at risk of civil liability, and derail Zacuity’s bright future but also because a patent pirate is – obviously – the worst of all criminals.

Tasked with hunting Jack down are two IPC agents, Eliasz, a human and Paladin, a newly minted and activated military-grade robot whose creators forgot to add to his programming the concept of gender which makes her confused not too long after. This confusion stems from the fact that she is trying to deal with his feelings for Eliasz, a ‘straight man’ who is falling in love with it but cannot come to grips with it till he knows what gender Paladin is. The usage of multiple pronouns for Paladin the robot in the previous sentence is intentional because that’s how Newitz plays out the programming that is social conditioning while dealing with the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin, as they continue to be hot on the trail of Jack, who is in turn racing against time, seeking to create an antidote to Zacuity and atone for having pirated it.

Also read: Democracy in the age of Information: A spotlight on Infomocracy, and a Q&A with its author Malka Older

Autonomous is as thrilling as it sounds, galloping as it does at a very brisk pace with action-packed pages while being garnished with some wry humour, laugh-out-loud sequences, and generous details about the world that Jack, Threezed, Eliasz and Paladin inhabit.

Agency and freedom. Autonomy and slavery. The power dynamics between the owner and the owned. Who you are and what you will compromise on to be what your world wants you to be. Property law and piracy. Forced labour and voluntary inequality. These are themes that keep cropping up in Autonomous, as each of the main characters is shown caught up trying to question their social conditioning and programming (as the case may be) as they seek to be truly autonomous and truly free. Free from ownership, free from fears of doing the right thing, free from the circumstances of birth and/or manufacture. But at its heart, Autonomous is a novel that explores big ideas about the implications of unbridled capitalism, of people (born or manufactured) as property, of anthropomorphising artificial intelligence and the coming golden age of biotech while giving it a cyberpunk-ish treatment.

But where the true strength of Autonomous lies is not so much in its desire to give the reader a fleshed-out world but in its reluctance to give easy answers or a satisfactory closure. There are no cut-and-dry heroes and villains and everyone and everything is spray painted in shades of grey. And for all of this, Autonomous clocks in at less than 300 pages (going by my 2017 Tor hardcover edition) and is a standalone novel.

Also read:  When advertising agencies take over the world: A huckster’s utopia of the future

So if you’re looking for a science fiction novel that harks back to some of the genre’s most fundamental questions, while being completely contemporary in its themes, tone and treatment. Or if you just want a thrilling read, Autonomous would be it. And if you would like to get just a glimpse of Autonomous, to dip your toes before you dive in so to speak, here’s the first four chapters of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, courtesy Tor Books. A book that I hope you will soon join me in recommending to fellow science fiction fans and avid readers.

On that note, I bid you goodbye until next weekend, when I hope to see you back here on FactorDaily again for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly as we continue exploring this many-splendored thing we call science fiction.

Live Long and Prosper!


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.