‘Autonomous’: a funny, violent novel of robots, humans, radical science

The first novel by renowned science popularizer Annalee Newitz is both extremely funny and unfussily violent.


by Annalee Newitz

Tor Books, 301 pp., $25.99

The humor and casual brutality of “Autonomous” overflowed my buffers. That’s a very technophilic way of phrasing what I mean. To restate in more customary-to-human terms, this first novel by renowned science popularizer Annalee Newitz is both extremely funny and unfussily violent; combined with her well-honed writing skills, those qualities kept me from questioning too deeply the parallels she points out between intelligent robots and human slaves — at least while I was reading it, and so far for two days afterward.

Newitz’s mercifully brief descriptions of the attacks and injuries sustained by her characters share a matter-of-fact tone with my favorite examples of the book’s humor, the many bot-to-bot communications. These read like deadpan scripts of current computer queries, though they take place in the middle of the next century. Starting with a few sentences establishing secure channels, intermachine conversations proceed to flat-footed declarations like:

“I am Paladin. You are unknown. Here comes my data. We want information about a pirate named Judith Chen. She goes by Jack … That is the end of my data.”

Paladin and Jack are the main characters in “Autonomous,” and its plot revolves around the pursuit of drug-hacker Jack by Paladin, a robot created and owned by the sinister International Property Coalition.

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Chapters alternate between Paladin’s viewpoint and that of 50-plus-year-old Jack, a human freelance pirate who reverse-engineers patented medicines such as an anti-aging serum called Vive — sometimes for profit, but mostly to hand out free to those who can’t afford them. Jack’s discovery that a work-enhancer she copied was deliberately designed to be addictive triggers a planet-wide search-and-destroy mission on the part of Paladin and human IPC agent Eliasz.

Jack’s an enthralling and believable character, tough and likable. Her ethical urges clash with her sexual imperatives, and her completely understandable actions inevitably spawn regrets.

Paladin is just as engaging, not least because of the bumbling nature of their coming to competence and, eventually, to the autonomy of the book’s title. Assigned masculine gender on manufacture,…

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