Annalee Newitz, cofounder and editor-in-chief of io9, has written a novel that has all the signs of being a major touchpoint in science fiction. Where in previous generations, physics or information technology have been at the heart of seminal works, speculations on nanotech or colonization tools, ecology or libertarian excursions in ruminations about personal power, Autonomous bases its meditations on questions of ownership and resource allocation in a future where both are matters of patent law.
If this seems like improbable grounds in which to grow a gripping, nail-biting action plot, reconsider. Wars are fought over exactly these two issues all the time. In fact, it would be difficult to name a war that wasn’t unleashed over both factors. Even those which might be described by other metrics, their prosecution still depended on these things.
We live in an age wherein most of the time we hear about such conflicts as courtroom exercises, involving lawyers and academics. Even so, to assume this is dull matter for exciting drama is to admit to a paucity of both imagination and understanding of the world around us.
Captain Jack Chen is a pirate with a personal submarine and a working knowledge of pharmacology. She “liberates” drugs and see them distributed through networks that get them to people who ordinarily can’t afford them, who need them, and who are denied the benefits of longer life, healthier bodies and minds, and opportunities contingent on just those things simply because of where they live, the class in which they’re stuck, and the politics in which they’re trapped. Captain Jack is an idealist who has learned the hard way to behave pragmatically and extra-legally in order to live with herself. As a young graduate student, she became politically active and established a group of radicals to challenge Big Pharma. When they tried to put their ideas into action, Jack was caught, tried, sent to prison. Her career was effectively over.
Many decades later, she plies a trade as pirate, reverse-engineering expensive drugs and seeing them made available through a variety of outlets. For the most part, she’s a well-known nuisance.
But then she makes available a work-enhancement drug called Zacuity that quickly turns into a nightmare. Not only is it addictive, it supplants the will to regulate concentration and application, leaving its victims remorselessly pursuing single tasks to the point of starvation and death. Taking a closer look at the drug, she finds the problem: it’s not that she made a mistake in the reverse engineering, but that she did not—the drug is designed this way. Which means the company, one of the massively huge pharmaceuticals, unleashed this intentionally.
Which also means that she has become a target.
A human-robot team are set on her trail, orders to kill her as a patent terrorist. The chase is on. Jack wants to undo the damage she inadvertently caused, but she has to do it before they find her, or no one will know about the potential catastrophe about to be unleashed.
Beyond all this, which Newitz handles with smooth assurance and uncommon good sense, the novel is about what is or is not justifiable in a society where property has taken on new levels of sophistry in its applications via indenturing, robotics, AI, debt obligations, and the prerogatives of patent-holders in matters of life and death.
This is the 22nd Century. Robotics and AI have developed to the point of self-awareness, or at least the kind of apparent consciousness that is definitionally indistinguishable from organic, “natural” consciousness. There are degrees, of course, but functionally, in society, there always have been when it comes to role allocation. Does an artificially constructed intelligence possess any rights to self-determination? And how do you distinguish between one emergent form of intelligence and another in pursuit of a justifiable legal framework of slavery?
Newitz clearly has her own opinion, but it doesn’t hi-jack the given world of the novel to grind axes. She simply presents a perfectly plausible set of social and technological conditions and show us the interactions—some of them inevitably outré, but logical—and lets the reader react. While the surface story is concerned with patent law and the abuses of big business and future pharmaceuticals, underneath, humming along like a finely-tuned Socratic dialogue, are these questions of personal ownership and the ethics of recognition. Of course, in the end, it’s all the same argument, but so much is slipped in as subtext, virally delivered in the form of a first-rate story, that we might not realize it till well after the final, recognizably polymorphic scene.
Autonomous is the kind of novel science fiction is most adept at producing—the thoughtful, philosophically-attuned thriller that leaves you with plenty to mull over once your adrenalin stops pumping.