This spring, genealogy service Ancestry.com was accused of secretly claiming rights to users’ DNA sequences. The company quickly changed its policy, denying any wrongdoing. But it was only the latest reminder of broadly companies can “own” information like biometric details, mental engagement, and even ideas. And it’s the kind of dangerous intersection of intellectual property rights and personal freedom that’s at the heart of Autonomous, the engaging debut novel of io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz.
The recently released Autonomous is set in mid-22nd Century Canada, where citizenship has been replaced by “franchise,” and humans work alongside advanced robots made with human flesh and brains. Easily manufactured drugs can cure almost any disease, boost mental performance, or even extend life. Access is guarded by pharmaceutical companies and the International Property Coalition, an organization that violently neutralizes intellectual property dissidents and patent pirates. “Autonomous” refers to the state of the book’s emancipated robots, who are originally indentured to pay for the cost of their creation. But it’s also an encapsulation of the novel’s themes, which pointedly indict reducing ideas and people (human or otherwise) to economic assets.
While Autonomous shifts its points of view liberally, its two protagonists are Judith “Jack” Chen, an idealistic patent pirate, and an IPC robot named Paladin, who is assigned to hunt her down. Jack gets her hands on a sample of a new focus-enhancing drug called Zacuity, which links completing tasks to a powerful narcotic high, and sells a reverse-engineered version on the black market. Suddenly, there’s an epidemic of students with debilitating homework addictions, clerks who die of starvation behind reams of paperwork, and other people who physically can’t stop themselves from working.
Jack thinks she’s made a mistake, but she’s soon convinced that Zacuity’s creators simply ignored, or even accepted, its side effects. She sets out to find a cure, hoping to expose their recklessness along the way. Meanwhile, the IPC sees Zacuity’s effects as a clear case of patent infringement gone wrong, and sends Paladin — along with a human handler named Eliasz — to cut off the source. The two methodically track Jack through the drug piracy underworld, while working out a complicated relationship and dealing with Paladin’s growing sense of self-awareness.
Paladin is literally property, and Jack is almost entirely self-sufficient, since piracy crackdowns have broken her ties with the outside world. But Newitz emphasizes how broad a spectrum of autonomy exists between them. De facto slavery is as accepted for humans as for robots, and judging from a moment of confusion in the first few chapters, the two can be nearly indistinguishable. There’s a fine line between robotic programming and human social conditioning, and when every object and idea is bound up in a rigid economic system, “choice” can be an illusion.
These aren’t singularly new ideas — among other things, Autonomous contains echoes of Paolo Bacigalupi’s exploitative capitalist dystopias; Cory Doctorow’s free culture treatises; and the ambivalent AI-human romance of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It. But Newitz has covered biotech, intellectual property law, and robotics in a journalistic capacity for years, and her book draws bold and interesting connections between the ownership of people and information, both of which are increasingly easy to catalog and claim in a world of big data.
Autonomous’ preoccupation with agency also adds moral ambiguity to a generally black-and-white condemnation of capitalism and intellectual property overreach. It’s hard to know, for instance, whether we should blame Paladin’s amoral violence on the generally likable robot or the IPC. Autonomous also emphasizes the complicated power gaps in sex and romance. Sometimes, this borders on uncomfortable; Jack begins a relationship with an abused former slave, for instance, that would feel much more dubious if their genders were reversed. With Paladin, though, Autonomous also explores how much relationships are defined by arbitrary and even meaningless distinctions — Eliasz is attracted to Paladin, but unable to proceed until he “knows” their effectively nonexistent gender.
For a novel that feels meant primarily to explore ideas, Autonomous builds a detailed and textured world, although it lingers a bit too much on describing hackerspace parties and exotic body mods. The focus on exceptional figures like Jack and Paladin also leaves some interesting threads underexplored — like how the rest of society functions when radical…