You might read science fiction just for fun. But since the development of the genre, our pleasure reads have also been an important means of asking ethical questions about the future of science and technology. What are the ramifications of our scientific advancements? How will their power be managed and how will they change our understanding of our humanity?
Annalee Newitz gets this. As co-founder of the popular sci-fi website io9, tech culture editor at Ars Technica, and past editor-in-chief of Gawker’s tech blog Gizmodo, Newitz spends her days considering the tech of today and where it’s all heading. And from this wealth of experience, we get her masterful debut science fiction novel, “Autonomous.”
Hear Newitz read at Women and Children First with fellow author Charlie Jane Anders on Sunday, Sept. 24.
Here’s the basic plot: It’s 2144. A new drug on the market makes work tasks easier and more pleasurable. (It reminds me of a mix of Ecstasy and Adderall.) When the anti-patent pirate Jack reverse engineers the drug, she figures out it’s responsible for a new string of consumer deaths, but the powers in charge are blaming her. As government agents pursue her for patent crimes, Jack’s on a mission to make the public aware of the dangers of the legal substance.
Like most well-written sci-fi, the story line isn’t nearly as gripping as the development of multi-dimensional characters and the bigger questions that the book asks—inquiries into the state of the pharmaceutical industry that are extremely relevant today. Who should profit from the development of new medication, especially those that are life-saving?
For those interested in the politics of biotech, this story of pharmaceutical hacking will draw you in. But that’s really only half the book.
“Autonomous” alternates between Jack and Paladin, a military bot that works for the agency searching for Jack. And to understand Paladin, you’ll need some context.
Here’s the world we’re placed in: Humans and robots alike can be indentured into years of service before granted their autonomy. Robots work alongside humans in medical and research labs, in marketplaces, on police forces. They’ve advanced to having something resembling free will and personal desires.
Paladin doesn’t have a choice in working for the agency pursuing Jack; he is indentured to them. Throughout his story, we see the bot questioning what he really thinks and desires and what he is programmed to. What does he have control over? And, using a sexually charged dynamic with Paladin’s human handler Eliasz, what can he really feel for another sentient being?
After an erotic exchange with Eliasz, Paladin questions what happened:
“If he’d been designed for sex, Paladin would have been given emo-cognitive training on the topic. His carapace would have implanted him with perversions and erotic desires and programs to emulate a sexual response cycle that would match the neuro-chemical cascades of his human counterparts. Built as he was, however, he had few tools to interpret or contextualize what had just transpired.”
Newitz uses robots to ask what defines sex, gender and queerness. And using a wider framework of indenture across humans and bots alike, Newitz also explores intricate questions about the nature of consent.
Through the interweaving of the topics—the freedom of information, innovation, the availability of medication, and freedom over one’s body, identity, and sexuality—we see how they’re all related. There are not separate and distinct social sciences and STEM fields. They are fluid and porous components of one larger system.
Read “Autonomous” for the questions. Read it for the unflinching portrayal of a possible near future. Read it for fun. It’s sometimes sexy, sometimes brutal, consistently fascinating.