Imagine a future a hundred thirty years or so removed from ours, with certain trends we can already see in the present turning more serious and having more of an impact on our lives, things like corporate influence in people’s lives, the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, essential drugs getting more and more expensive, to the point where the majority of people can’t afford them. Then throw in piracy and robots and gender questions, and what do you have?  

You have Autonomous, a debut novel by Annalee Newitz, and even if you’re not big on science fiction in general and “hard” science fiction in particular, there are things that might tempt you into reading this novel.

Let’s start with Jack, the protagonist, who’s a pirate.  She’s a Robin Hood figure living and working in a submarine, reverse engineering the drugs that people need to stay alive, and giving them away to people who can’t afford the “legal” prices.  There’s obviously not a lot of money in that particular enterprise, so in order to make a living, she also reverse engineers other kinds of drugs and sells them.  The submarine is not just because pirates should live in or on the water, but because it keeps her out of the range of people who want to stop her (such as the pharmaceutical industry people).

Naturally something goes wrong.  There wouldn’t be a story if something didn’t go wrong.  In this case, Jack reverse engineers a productivity drug which is supposed to make people better workers. All well and good except for two things: first, it turns out to be incredibly addictive, and second, it turns out to work all too well, to the point where people are compelled to keep working endlessly until they crack or die.  Jack is horrified, as any normal person would be, to see the effects of her drug, and she determines to find a way to cure the problem she’s caused.

Meanwhile, the drug companies she’s taking advantage of want to stop her, and so they’ve hired an unlikely pair of hunters, Eliasz, a human military agent with mood issues, and Paladin, a robot.  Here’s where we get into the gender issues, as Eliasz and Paladin start developing romantic and sexual feelings for each other, except they have to first get past Eliasz’s refusal to allow himself feelings for someone he considers a male.  Paladin, who has never considered itself male or female, has to decide on its gender, which it does in an interesting way.

Action and adventure, thought-provoking ideas about where our society is going, fascinating characters: if you’re in the mood for some good speculative fiction, give Autonomous a read.


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