I've probably read Annalee Newitz a lot without ever realising it. She's the tech-culture editor at Ars Technica and she founded io9. She's also written for Wired, 2600 and New Scientist, among many others. I can't have not read her! This, however, was her debut novel, released in 2017 and nominated for a slew of awards, including the Nebula, Campbell and Locus, and I'm happy to be finally catching up with it.
As you might imagine with her background in technology, this is a clever and engaging speculative look at where technology may take us in the future: its flashbacks take place in 2120 while the main story unfolds in 2144. Ignoring the actual technological change, for a moment, I liked how Newitz approached this, writing clearly enough for us to understand what's different but never losing us in brief detours to explain why. With a few key exceptions, most of the tech is just there, like the way microswarms of drones congregate to create visual screens in the air or kayaks that biodegrade.
We also understand the locations without needing to sign up for a class in the geopolitics of the next century. We spend a great amount of time in the biotech park in Casablanca, because the discipline moved where laws allowed it to thrive and the African Federation was happy to relax legislation and invite in the cutting edge. We spend time in Inuit Alaska as well and under Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan. While this would be an easy buy for cyberpunks, I don't believe we ever visit Tokyo. The locations are refreshingly different.
The technology is both backdrop and the catalyst for our story. Jack Chen is a hacker working as a biotech pirate in a world suffering from patent abuse by major corporations. It's easy to synthesise drugs in 2144 so she does so, making them cheaply available to those who otherwise wouldn't be able to buy them at retail price. The catch is that she's reverse engineered a new drug, Zacuity, which aims at increased productivity, and it's gone horribly wrong. People are becoming addicted to their work, whether it's stamping papers or painting a house, so addicted that they can't do anything else and so become insane or die of starvation.
It's worth mentioning that Jack appears to be the heroine of the story, but there's a lot of grey here beyond the fact that she deliberately breaks the law for the common good. She also chooses to free a boy, after killing the thief to whom he's become indentured. Now, the killing was self-defence, as that thief was trying to rob her submarine, but freeing the boy was illegal even if it wasn't immoral. And, while Jack released the hacked Zacuity that has been killing people, it turns out to be dangerous in its regular form as well, so she can't bear all of the blame, and she does see it as her duty to develop and release a cure.
As the novel runs on, we gradually realise that those shades of grey extend to the other side too. That's IPC agents Eliasz and Paladin, who are tasked with tracking down whoever was responsible for releasing the Zacuity that's causing death and insanity, someone they regard as a terrorist. IPC is the International Property Coalition, so there's grey just in their existence. The agents' job is to ensure that the owners of intellectual property don't have their rights infringed by hackers and, when they are, to put a stop to it. They are therefore a sort of corporate militia, so while they're legal, they may not be moral. How they do their job underlines that.
I'm not sure how far we get into the novel before we realise that this plot is just the plot. The real core of the book is a musing on what it means to be free. The boy Jack frees is known as 3Z or Threezed. His mother sold him to an indenture school when he was five and, when the school went bankrupt, they auctioned him off. The reason why indentures are back in our future is because we have robots, like Paladin, who is sentient and has a human brain inside his artificial skin. Robots are generally not free and the thinking became that, if sentient robots can be indentured then why can't humans?
Newitz never gets overtly philosophical but there's a lot of musing on this as the book runs on. That's also what the title is about. Robots can be set free to live their lives and that's called autonomy. While we follow Paladin as he wonders about his restrictions and what they mean, we meet another bot who's already autonomous and we learn through her too. Of course, when Jack frees Threezed and destroys his tracker, she gives him autonomy too. It's an interesting situation where both humans and robots can be free or not.
What's more, the drug at the heart of the story raises more questions on the same line. If there are productivity drugs that improve our ability to focus and our dedication to the tasks our work requires us to do, then those who take them are more employable. Keeping our own will and identity becomes an obstacle between us and the workplace. Zacuity provides so much focus that we become slaves in another way, unable to do anything but work and enjoy it immensely. Suddenly we wonder if anyone in this future has real autonomy. Does anyone own their own mind?
I like Newitz's ability to make us question. That's what sf is all about but most writers just take us along for the ride. Newitz sets us up to see Jack as a rogue heroine, a sort of futuristic biotech Robin Hood, but are we able to forgive everything she's done? And does that make her enemies bad guys? I sympathised more with Paladin than anyone here, as someone learning so much about himself that he realises that he's a she. Yet, while Paladin may think that she's a good guy, she really isn't and so we question whether deeds or intentions determine what moral side we're on.
There's a lot here and I've only scratched the surface. I thoroughly enjoyed this surprisingly deep exploration of freedom and identity and look forward to Newitz's second, unrelated novel, The Future of Another Timeline, which came out in 2019. A third is due in 2021. ~~ Hal C F Astell