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Friday, 16 March 2018

Book review: Autonomous, Annalee Newitz (2017)

I gave it a good shot but I regret to say that this genre novel’s dystopian world bored me silly. It just doesn’t drag you in, and relies instead on such standard sci-fi strategies as robots and crime to spark the reader’s interest.

The novel opens with Jack Chen, who is a pirate of an ethnic Asian background who lives in North America and who deals in contraband drugs. She drives a submarine around the globe transporting her cargo from source to market. The most recent cargo was a product named Zacuity, invented by a company named Zaxy, that enhances the user’s work experience. A student in Calgary had been so badly affected by a batch from Jack’s hold that she wouldn’t stop doing her homework. The story hit the news.

The scenes with Jack are interleaved with others that take place in the Sahara Desert with a robot named Paladin. The robot has a human brain at its cognitive core that is wired into an artificial neural network to enhance its operation, but Paladin has no memories and doesn’t know where the brain came from. Paladin is new and is being sent on a mission along with a human named Eliasz, who hails originally from Poland, by the International Property Coalition, to find and stop Jack.

There are opportunities to generate real human drama in the book but the author is more interested in the technologies she is inventing to power the plot. The emotional disconnect you have is total, and Jack is even able to kill an intruder in her submarine with a thrown knife without batting an eyelid. She goes into her kitchen and programs a printer to make herself a set of cement boots with which to dispose of the robber’s body. Threezed, a human indentured into a form of slavery to the robber, enters the story as Jack assesses the damage caused by the intrusion.

Yet there is no emotional bond in evidence for any of the characters. Science fiction often has this problem, but creating plotlines that rely on moments of excessive pathos – the story of the slave Threezed for example – are no substitute for real human emotions. There is nothing here to hold onto if the technological ploys fail to get your pulse racing. For me, it was all just window dressing.

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