Review: Autonomous

I’ve been on a run of reading SF that I really like. The latest is Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. This is a book I could comfortably call a thriller, but it shifts its shape and focus throughout. I could also say its using a imaginary technology to examine ideas of consciousness and intelligence and how those are manipulated, or that it’s a using a dystopian near future world to comment on freedom and duty. It’s all of those at once, and Newitz does a remarkable job keeping all those balls in the air.

Some authors use genre fiction to sugar-coat disruptive ideas in a way that some readers see them and some don’t. Newitz isn’t doing that. The book keeps all its themes in focus throughout, but each of them gets their time at the forefront. If you want to read a thriller about drug pirates vs enforcement agents and not think about the nature of corporate capitalism and personal freedom, you’re going to wind up wanting to skip some chapters.

But, see, here’s the problem with that plan. The thriller is still going on and the characters are still living. When the more philosophical ideas are and front and center they’re not alone, just the most well-lit. You can’t skip the chapter where implications about how incentives and addiction blur in academia and corporate life are front and center because it’s also moving the thriller plot and the character development forward as an integrated whole. Not a lot is happening in the side channel, but what is happening there is crucial.

There’s an argument that Autonomous is about multitasking and is telling by showing. But there’s no shortage of takes on about what this book is about. It covers a lot of thematic ground with elan. If that weren’t enough it’s got a jaw-dropping rate of tossing out provocative ideas both central and tangential to the plot. And the world.

In addition to being so structurally sound, their prose is phenomenal. There are many turns of phrase I’ll be keeping. Newitz consistently lights a fuse in one place that bursts into a laugh-out-loud joke or emotional chord a hundred pages later.

A must.

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