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A Political History of the Future: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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[This is another in a series of guest posts by Abigail Nussbaum.]

Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, an irregular series about how contemporary SF and fantasy address current political issues, and how they imagine worlds different than our own in their political, social, and economic functioning. Our first subject, published last fall, is the first novel by io9 co-founder Annalee Newitz, a technothriller about a world in which the ready availability of non-human labor fundamentally changes the meaning of freedom.

The title of Autonomous is a pun, and a thesis statement. “Autonomous”, in our understanding and in the current common usage, refers to machines that can function without human interference–autonomous cars, most commonly. Despite its connotations of freedom, it’s a designation that denotes inhumanity. It isn’t necessary, after all, to specify that a human being is autonomous. In the world of Autonomous, this is no longer the case. Its citizens–human and machine–are distinguished as either autonomous or indentured. So a word that connotes freedom becomes a reminder of how it can cease to be taken for granted, and a usage that connotes inhumanity is transformed in a world in which personhood is a legal state and not a biological one. In both cases, it’s a reminder that the hard-won ideas of liberty and human rights that we take for granted are not set in stone; that core assumptions about how society could and should function can change, in many cases for the worse.

Set in a corporatized mid-22nd century, Autonomous imagines a world in which machine intelligence exists and in which “bots” can replace much of human labor. There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog about the effect that work automation will have on the economics of society–what do we do when many of us become superfluous to the labor market? Autonomous‘s focus, however, is on what happens when intelligent non-human beings become legally ownable, their labor the property of their owners. Despite their sentience, bots are held in indentured servitude by their creators–the reasoning being that because a manufacturer takes on a financial burden in making a bot that isn’t undertaken by humans when they create a child, they’re entitled to compensation for their initial outlay. The indenture is meant to last only ten years, but most owners manage to stretch it out, and in practice very few bots manage to live long enough to gain their autonomy.

So far, so familiar. Though Newitz adds some idiosyncratic wrinkles to her depiction of bots, what she’s created is essentially an enslaved underclass familiar from many other works of SF. What’s different in Autonomous is the reaction that human society has to the existence of bots, and the crisis they create in the labor market.

Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments and economic coalitions that later became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles, established the rights of humans to become indentured. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?

As Newitz repeatedly makes clear, the effect of creating a sentient underclass who can perform labor is to erase the distinction between people and machines. Not only are sentient beings enslaved under the justification of being machines, but humans are expected to behave in ways that are more machine-like if they want to compete. Early in the novel we’re introduced to the notion of “indenture schools” who purchase the children of the poor, and where “managers trained them to be submissive just like they were programming a bot.” The McGuffin that sets the plot going is a productivity drug that causes its users to become so addicted to work that they kill themselves (and in some cases others) just for the high of continuing to do it.

That drug, Zacuity, is released to the black market by Jack, a “patent pirate” and one of the novel’s heroes. In order to finance her cause of producing and distributing bootleg medications under the noses of patent-hoarding pharmaceutical companies, Jack rips and copies their recreational and lifestyle drugs. (The unchecked power of pharma companies to sell their drugs at whatever price they set and protect their copyright indefinitely is an important throughline in the novel that I won’t get into in this review. For a longer discussion of that aspect, see Niall Harrison’s review in Strange Horizons.) When she does this with Zacuity, Jack realizes too late the drug’s baleful effect. Technically, selling deliberately addictive treatments is illegal, but Zacuity’s manufacturers were counting on employers to value the added productivity of their workers too much to complain, and to keep those workers on a carefully regimented dosage.

With Jack’s fake Zacuity on the open market, she kicks off an epidemic, and decides to get back in contact with her old friends in the legitimate open source biotech movement in order to come up with a cure. Joining her is indenture school graduate Threezed, whom she semi-rescues when his master tries to rob her, and whose tale of being passed from one abusive master to another gives us a glimpse of how poorly regulated the supposed protections of the indenture system actually are. In a second storyline, the fresh-off-the-factory-line combat bot Paladin is assigned to work with Eliasz, an agent for the IPC (the International Property Coalition, a body charged with protecting patents and IP), who is pursuing Jack.

As often turns out to be the case with the kind of technothrillers that use their world to explore how technology and economic pressures might change future society, the escape-and-pursuit aspect of Autonomous is where the novel is weakest, functioning largely as a scaffolding for its worldbuilding. The Jack storyline, in particular, though allegedly the heart of the book, ends up going in circles. Jack spends several chapters learning about the damage caused by her bootleg Zacuity, feeling terrible guilt over her role in the epidemic, and resolving to do whatever she can to fix it, only to repeat the cycle the next time we check in on her. The real meat of this storyline are the flashbacks that show us how Jack went from an idealistic grad student hoping to do Good Science to a patent pirate. This, however, is another way of showing us the book’s world, specifically the way its legal system is biased towards intellectual property and corporate profits and against lives and rights.

By giving agents of the state like Paladin and Eliasz a point of view, Newitz highlights the habits of thought that allow the society of her world to exist. In one chapter, Eliasz muses darkly about his time as an indenture enforcement officer in Las Vegas, a hub of human trafficking, where loopholes and corruption meant that he frequently had to stand by as underage slaves were sold illegally. He likes his work for the IPC because there’s no red tape preventing him from helping people. But as we quickly realize, the only people Eliasz is helping are corporate shareholders, and the red tape he’s so glad to be rid of is what might have stopped him from casually torturing and murdering potential informants, which he and Paladin do several times throughout the novel.

Far more interesting is the book’s handling of Paladin and its other bot characters. One of the most original touches Newitz offers in Autonomous is the idea that the reality of being a bot and the image that humans construct of it are two very different things. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the way the world’s idea of personhood has shifted in response, not just to the existence of bots, but to the pressures of capitalism. Paladin, for example, has a human brain as part of their configuration. The humans they meet are awed by this new technology, certain that it confers on the bot some heretofore unknown capabilities. Eliasz, meanwhile, assumes that the brain is who Paladin “really” is, and pressures them to access its memories.

In truth, Paladin uses the brain as the equivalent of a graphics card, in order to perform fast facial recognition and to parse human emotions. But the awed, uncomprehending response of humans is exactly what Paladin’s manufacturers were hoping for–the bots who assemble Paladin explain that the brain is a “marketing gimmick”, unnecessary to Paladin’s normal function and unlikely to be replaced if it’s damaged. In an added example of how indentured humans and bots are interchangeable in the book’s world, the brain turns out to have belonged to a soldier indentured to the same company Paladin now works for, who was killed in action before the full value of their indenture could be extracted.

Another interesting use of the bots is the fact that Eliasz and Paladin embark on a sexual relationship a short way into the story. Newitz does a good job of exploring this relationship from Paladin’s point of view, as a creature who is, on the one hand, programmed not just to follow Eliasz’s orders, but to feel loyalty and devotion to him, and on the other hand, an intelligent being capable of making their own choices, albeit within a very restrictive framework. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable storyline, as Eliasz, for all his good intentions towards Paladin, never truly comes to understand the person he claims to be in love with. In particular, he becomes obsessed with finding out the gender of the person Paladin’s brain came from, because he doesn’t want to believe that he’s attracted to a man.

I ended up feeling less positive towards this romance than I suspect Newitz wanted me to be, feeling that Threezed has the right of it when he observes that “Every master loves to fuck a slave.” As we see in other parts of the novel, even well-intentioned people who consider themselves progressive can have blindspots about the personhood of people they’ve been taught to devalue, as when Jack squirms in embarrassment when her old friend, a fellow revolutionary, treats her indentured nanny as little better than a piece of furniture (Jack has, by this point, allowed Threezed to seduce her in what she clearly knows is an attempt to secure his place with her, so she hasn’t got much of a leg to stand on). But one of Newitz’s arguments with Autonomous is that personhood is not something that can be programmed out of a person (or a robot). Threezed maintains his humanity in the face of training designed to stamp it out, and Paladin makes choices and value judgments even when their options are limited. Both are making the best of a bad situation.

Making do under limited and limiting circumstances is, in fact, what most of the characters in Autonomous strive for. In my introduction to this series I said that I wanted to write about functional futures, worlds that work even if they’re not perfect. Autonomous isn’t quite that (and frankly I suspect that its economy wouldn’t hold water if you actually tried to work it out), but neither is it a pure dystopia, because it ends with an emphasis on its characters’ ability to carve out something resembling freedom for themselves. As Jack’s old friend Krish argues, the world we find in Autonomous is suffering “the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property.” It would perhaps be reductive to call this book a warning, but given how heedlessly much of our political discussion is rushing towards a post-labor world, that label might not be inappropriate.

Next time on APHotF: Netflix’s Altered Carbon, with potentially a bonus discussion of Richard Morgan’s 2002 novel. I may, however, have something to say about Black Panther before that.

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