Autonomous: A Novel, by Annalee Newitz

Several themes weave their way through this unique and interesting book from Annalee Newitz, one of the founding editors of i09 and author of a dozen intriguing books.

The central theme is that pharmaceutical companies have manipulated patent laws in their favor, leaving a world where only corporations or the wealthy can take advantage new and important drugs. This has created an underground of drug pirates, chemistry specialists who work to reverse engineer drugs in order to make them available to everyone. A woman named Jack is one of these, and she has engineered a drug used by corporations to motivate their workers. The drug turns on pleasure centers when work is completed. This drives employees to complete assignments for an experience even more thrilling than sex. However, something has gone haywire. Some of those using the reverse engineered medications have become so obsessed that they cannot stop some tasks, leading one school girl to compulsively do homework and a man to be so focused that he refuses to eat.

This puts a pair of pharmacy patent police on her trail, introducing another theme. One is a human named Eliasz, the other is a cyborg named Paladin. In this future it was determined that cyborgs have rights, but their creators are owed a return on their investment. As a result cyborgs like Paladin are indentured for what is supposed to be a limited time, after which they earn their autonomy. Feeling left out, humans lobbied for the right to be indentured as well, so they now sell chunks of their lives to corporations. Because … corporations … the freedom and autonomy part of the bargain is often gamed to stretch for extra years.

Eliasz and Paladin begin to bond during their hunt for Jack, with Paladin forced to wonder if it (cyborgs have no gender) is growing closer to Eliasz due to true desire or programming.

The book is filled with ambiguous sexuality. Paladin allows itself to be called “she” for the sake of the relationship. Jack has a sexual relationship with another woman.

In a genre with so many cookie-cutter futures it’s a pleasure to read something that explores ideas in such a different framework. It also reflects on new ideas within materialism that there is no such thing as free will, only chemical responses to stimuli. Somehow our chemistry acts before we’re conscious of decisions. I look forward to digging deeper into the Newitz canon.