‘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…

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