By Annalee Newitz
Tor Books, ISBN: 9780765392077
Paperback, 304 pages. ©2017

Big Pharma owns the patents to all the essential medicines, and prices them so high that only the wealthy can afford to buy them. Pirates—intent on a) making money or b) helping those who can’t afford the medicine they need—reverse engineer the drugs and put them out on the black market. Jack, a genetic engineer by training, is a pirate in both categories, designing the less crucial meds for sale in order to bankroll her efforts to flood the free market with meds that can save lives. But when one of the side jobs turns ugly, hundreds die and Jack must scramble to find a solution and to prove that the original Pharma drug is addictive to the point of self-destruction before the IPC agents sent by the Pharma company can kill her.

I must admit I had a bit of difficulty connecting to this book at first. The reader is dropped into Newitz’s futuristic world with little introduction, and the struggle to follow what was happening detracted from my enjoyment of the story. However, once I caught on, that all changed. Everything takes place on Earth right up until near the very end, though mention is made of lunar and Mars settlements, but it’s not an Earth we would recognize. Big Pharma and the corporations have changed the face of nations and while there are still a few familiar city and location names, descriptions of these places are completely alien.

In addition, humans are different. Both the main human characters, Jack and Eliasz, have digital enhancements in the form of implants and wearable devices that make them approach the nature of cyborgs. This, to me, seemed believable given how we seem to be moving in that direction already. The other characters, specifically Paladin and Medea, are bots–but not the typical robots we’re used to in sci-fi. Some have human biological elements; in Paladin’s case, it’s a human brain. Think Bicentennial Man.

The main storyline is the struggle between big business and the good of the people, between Big Pharma’s control over the human population and the small Free Labs where drug research is done in an open source format. Big Pharma owns the copyrights on their medicines in perpetuity, infringement against which is a capital offense punishable by death, with no trial necessary. They are unregulated, accountable to no one. If something goes wrong, as it does in a very big way in this story, their political and economic power enables them to avoid all responsibility. This theme is mirrored in the autonomy or “ownership” of not only bots, but human beings as well. No human has the right to work unless they own a franchise. Parents who can afford it purchase a franchise for their children at birth. Parents who can’t do so must sell their children into indentured service, which technically has an end date but which frequently lasts a lifetime. No one monitors the legal loopholes. Poor children’s contracts are often sold again and again, renewing for the full term with each sale.

This contrast between contracts of indenture and the freedom of an autonomous life is a sub-thread in the tale. One of the human characters, Threezed, is as indentured as one of the bots, Paladin. Threezed’s advantage is that he can think for himself, while Paladin is never sure whether her thoughts are her own, or whether they are programmed for her. Paladin, perhaps, evolves more than any other character throughout the novel, and I found her explorations and discoveries endearing, even though she is one of the antagonists. In this development lies a third layer of the complex story, that of the nature of gender. All bots are considered by most humans to be male. When Paladin is given a choice of pronouns by her master, an unheard of option among indentured bots, she chooses the feminine. Her reasons are complicated, and add to her character’s depth.

One thing I found intriguing about this novel is that even the “bad guys” aren’t bad guys. Both Jack and Eliasz/Paladin are doing what they are “programmed” to do. It just so happens that these two missions conflict, with near disastrous results for all concerned.

While I enjoyed the novel, it’s worth pointing out that there was so much going on in the story that it was a challenge to really connect with any one thing. There isn’t as much description of the surroundings or worldbuilding as I might have liked, not enough to help me feel comfortable in this alien, futuristic place and certainly not enough to be completely immersed in the surroundings of Jack’s Saskatchewan. It didn’t stop me from reading it, but it did make for a rough start, as I said before.

That said, Autonomous is so much more than just a crime drama, or a sci-fi adventure. It’s richly textured in meaning and depth that can’t be read lightly. There’s a lot to absorb, messages ripe for our time. Definitely worth a read.