Autonomous arrives bearing the endorsement of William Gibson, Lauren Beukes and Neal Stephenson, and io9 co-founder Annalee Newitz’s debut lives up to the hype. It’s a cyberpunk thriller but the author is much more interested in big questions than big futuristic fight sequences.
The story is divided between Jack, a pirate who reverse-engineers patented drugs to sell to those who can’t afford the ludicrous corporate fees, and a military robot named Paladin, who is assigned to assist agent Eliasz in hunting Jack down. As they near their quarry, they become closer in other unexpected ways.
Newitz’s tech and science expertise is very much on display in Autonomous and she has a lot of fun with the details (there is something undeniably wonderful about the fact that our pirate heroine operates from a submarine). As for the thriller element, it quickly becomes apparent that the chase is not the priority in this brisk but layered story. Instead, as the title suggests, the author explores themes of indentured servitude through Paladin’s pre-programmed loyalty and human slave Threezed’s incredibly limited options. She shows us the joy of discovery as Jack remembers a time when she believed she was going to help the world through “Good Science” and the corporate greed that hobbles any such attempt.
The story’s most compelling strand, however, is Paladin’s. The robot’s attempts to untangle its feelings for Eliasz, muddled by built-in obedience drives and mostly-useless but definitely gendered human brain in its carapace, are fascinating and unexpectedly unsentimental, even brutal at times. It’s a novel about choices and the lack of them, and Autonomous impresses with its intelligence and sensitivity.