Book reflection: Autonomous

Preface: Since this blog is languishing a bit, I’m going to retreat to book reports occasionally. My hope is that writing will fertilize the seeds laid in the earth of my cognus by the books I read.

I try not to shy away from the truth about myself. Today’s truth: that in many ways I’m a bit of a dilettante. Take Autonomous, for example. This book points out how – despite whatever pretension I have to science fiction – many books come to me only by chance. Every week, my family walks through the door of the public library and we briefly part ways. Kids dive into the basement to their section, full of bright colors and clean carpets. My wife disappears to I don’t know where, to find something she’s caught wind of. I scan the new fiction section for the little pieces of tape marked “SF”.

This is a terrible, exciting way to find reading material. Terrible because stuff like “the fifteenth installment of the Broken Sword series” gets tagged as science fiction, and I have to pull my fingers away, burned. The sheer volume of “science fiction and fantasy” novels produced (of the approximately half-million books published each year, less than a thousand are in my category) means one must wade through a tide of books one is not  looking for. Exciting because every once in a while, an Autonomous leaps from shelf to hand, and I spend a few days feeling exhilarated, inspired, and provoked. Well permanently exhilarated, inspired, and provoked… but the sensation is most heady while reading the book. Science fiction novels and stories find me by other means, but I suppose these accidental finds point out how much harder I could be working at this.

Anyway, given that I’m a book-finding slouch, I suppose it should come as no surprise that I’d not heard of Annalee Newitz. Or that I’m not an Ars Technica subscriber. Or iO9, either. Or that the current state of the literature does not bathe my mind like a literary nutrient brine (well, subliterary). Please go find out about Newitz. Read all her writings. For myself, Autonomous sits beside Walkaway and New York 2140 on the mental shelf. Or together they create a meaningful (sub)literary Venn diagram. Or they are the notes of a cognitive chord one only hears once all are read. Anyway, I read them all this year.

Here are 4 things I liked. There might be more, but I’m only going to reflect on 4, because I have other shit to do today. 1) Newitz understands biotechnology and other disciplines well enough to create a believable, engaging world around reasonably likely tech. 2) She shares (or anyway expresses) the vision that capitalism and its perpetrators are willing to turn us all into profit cogs, but she also envisions ways that individuals and communities can overcome or bypass the oppressor. 3) She also finds interesting ways to explore the oppressions that relationships accrue. Also, there’s a fourth thing.

First, the biotech. In this 100 years away Earth, all the problems of modern biochemistry and mol bio have been solved, and these fields have moved from the exploratory rule-building we stumble through today to raspberry pi-style garage tinkering. In this sense, though, the “discovery” of Autonomous is more detective-fiction than science fiction. Science isn’t breaking new ground, but its ready and ubiquitous expression makes drug design maker-spaces possible.

Second, the vilification of patent-obsessed scientists/venture capitalists/industrialists resonates wonderfully. As do the (futile) attempts to subvert the system. Even at a podunk U. like mine, some scientists look up from the latest issue of PLoS One dreaming about Intellectual Property with no sense of irony. And perpetually money-starved administrators wait hungrily for the licensing deals that will surely attend on faculty patents. So what Autonomous shows us is that the off-the-shelf-science can empower lone sciactivists or semi-autonomous collectives to take on the Man, because the means of production are ready for anyone to seize.

Third, this is a book about a cyborg, but more broadly about slavery. Corporate slavery. So many aspects one could consider here*, but I’m restricting myself to the idea of gender for brevity’s sake (679 words and counting). Can a human love a robot? Of course. A human can love watching commercials punctuated by spectator sports; a human can love anything. Can a human project his/her own psychological deformities onto the beloved? We hold some truths to be self-evident. Anyway, these aspects of human-machine love are kind of low-hanging fruit for science fiction. Where it took me, though, is to the construction of gender. Where more constructed than in an asexual object (robot) with a mind, surrounded by emotional humans projecting their desires everywhere. Of course, in science fiction the robot is usually an avatar for the human, and so it’s fun to reflect on the extent to which a human’s persona is socially constructed. Furthermore, in an “if you have a Y, you’re a guy” paradigm of biology, is there scientific (biological, reductive) room for learning about how gender is shaped?

The fourth tidbit. No matter how science-savvy science fiction writers are, and no matter how satisfied I am to read an author who’s staking out the boundaries of their constructed world using the language of science, there are limits. And they are fun to ruminate on. Why? Because white spaces on the map and all that. In Autonomous, I found the dragons be how to construct consciousness from software.

I’ll keep scanning the new arrivals for the novel that sketches in those boundaries. Or maybe I’ll do it myself. But first there are apples to press, and three other active fermentations that need my attention. So this is it for the writing.


*intelligent robots can be slaves; are we not just intelligent robots; humans are always ready to enslave eachother; does love enslave us; are we slaves to the love we feel, or to the beloved; humans are slaves to consumerism; consumerism enslaves our minds; consumer debt makes us figurative slaves; we will forget that indenture was bad and revive it (now ready player one adds a note to the chord); etc, etc, etc


One response to “Book reflection: Autonomous

  1. On the asterisk, see Melville (or Ishmael), from early in Moby-Dick: “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way— either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”

    Lest that be seen as a micro-aggressive displacing of the enslavement of Africans, one way to read Moby-Dick is as a novel-length argument against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law in the years prior to the Civil War.

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