Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

I wasn’t sure I’d like this book at first.  I don’t love science fiction that focuses too much on technology at the expense of character development, and this book features a high-tech robot as a main character. I read it because I needed a winner of a Lambda Literary Award for the Reading Women challenge, and also because I’d heard Newitz on a podcast  with Charlie Jane Anders called Our Opinions are Correct.

The premise of this book is really interesting. Jack Chen is a kind of space pirate who reverse-engineers and distributes patented pharmaceuticals for people who can’t afford the medicines they need.  Jack finds out one of her drugs is killing people because it’s so addictive, so she has to go underground fast – but she also feels like she has to get these drugs off the market or find a cure.

Paladin and Eliasz are agents tasked with hunting down Jack.  Paladin is a robot with super weapons and a human brain, and Eliasz is his human partner.  Their relationship is complicated when they develop an attraction for each other.  Eliasz struggles with his attraction to a robot he sees as “male”.  Paladin knows the idea of gender has no meaning for a robot, but he needs to understand what it means to Eliasz. Their feelings for each other raise interesting questions, not just about gender but on the nature of consent and independent thought. As the title “Autonomous” suggests, Newitz explores a lot of ideas related to human and robot enslavement. Threezed is a human who was sold into slavery as a child.  Med is a free robot who was “born” into a family and given something like a human childhood.  Paladin is a robot who has never wanted to be autonomous, until he’s given a taste of freedom.

The relationships described in the book are deeply problematic. Newitz attempts to resolve some of the Eliasz-Paladin issues, though I found this unsatisfying.  My sense is that Newitz means for these relationships to feel conflicted, but I can’t be sure.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and found it hard to get into at first even though the story is interesting.  The narrator speaks in a very deadpan voice most of the time, although some of her character voices were engaging.

As a warning, parts of this book are really violent, and as a listener I wasn’t always prepared for that.  Paladin and Eliasz seem like the good guys, until they start interrogating people, and then it gets ugly.  I was bothered by this but I appreciated the way Newitz played around with the idea of who the “heroes” are in this story.

I can see why so many people liked this book and why it won the Lambda award.

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