by Annalee Newitz
Cover Artist: Design by Will Staehle
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765392077
Date: 19 September 2017 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Annalee Newitz's debut novel Autonomous is a cat-and-mouse game, where a savvy gene-pirate tries to evade the pursuit of a murderous pair of patent enforcement agents. And it's a touching, at times disquieting, romance between a robot coming to terms with their identity and a hard-bitten cop/secret agent. And it's a story of how a young activist finds her efforts to improve the world crushed by corporate power, becoming more and more radical and cynical. It is all of these things and more in a fast-paced 300 pages--there are layers and layers of complex character interaction just beneath the surface of the thriller plot that animates the narrative.
The story follows Jack, a gene pirate who makes bootleg copies of patented drugs to save the lives of those who can't afford the prices the big pharma companies charge. However, unbeknownst to her, the latest bootleg concentrationóbooster she sold has deadly side effects. Even as she struggles to undo the harm she has caused, this brings her to the attention of the authorities and a pair of agents are assigned to track her down. Paladin is a newly constructed robot, legally indentured for 10 years to recoup the cost of their construction before they will be made autonomous and given root access to their own mind. Their partner is Eliasz, a skilled operative who struggles with the morality of his work. Together, they are set on Jackís trail and an unlikely romance blossoms between robot and human.
If we just consider the novel as a fast-paced thriller, it holds up well. It is a thoroughly entertaining read with plenty of suspense and action to keep the plot rolling. But where it excels is in the way it interweaves this story with the various themes that animate the novel. We get an exploration of the role of corporate power, with a future in which the right to work must be paid for, and some people need to indenture themselves into veritable slavery to live. There are musing on the nature of identity, with Jacks path from promising researcher to criminal and pirate juxtaposed to Paladin, who canít even know which of their own thoughts and feelings arise from prearranged programming and which are truly their own or what the difference might be. There are sharp observations on gender, with Paladin being without gender in their own mind, but whose gender is extremely important to Eliasz, who cannot accept his own attraction to a being he perceives as male. But none of this intrudes or slows down the plot--it arises seamlessly from the story, and never slows the pace.
It's not a perfect novel. Some of the secondary characters feel like they need a bit more room to develop, especially Threezed, an indentured man saved by Jack. He is a fascinating character, but some of his character development comes off as jarring or sudden because he has little time on stage for the first half of the novel. The ending also feels like it could have been handled better--I wanted a bit more interaction between Jack and the characters who have spent the whole novel hunting her.
This is a hugely impressive debut full of fascinating ideas. The world-building, characterization, and the consummate skill with which big ideas are folded into a gripping plot all make this book a treat to read. Newitz does an especially good job of making us invest in Paladin and Eliasz without asking us to condone the terrible things we see them do in their pursuit of Jack. We are not asked to endorse or even forgive their actions, but this doesnít prevent us wanting to learn more of their story. I loved this book and canít wait to see what Newitz comes up with next.