Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz (Creative Commons photo)

By William H. Stoddard

Annalee Newitz has had a successful career as a print and online journalist, and has published several books, but until Autonomous, all of these were nonfiction. It was a happy discovery for me that her first venture into fiction showed real mastery of the craft. I laughed at her epigraph from “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” and promptly tracked the song down and bought it; and the opening page of her narrative hooked me and kept me reading. Both her handling of characterization and plot, and the quality of her prose, were the kind of thing I hope for when I glance at a new book and ask if I want to read it.

The title Autonomous refers to one of the novel’s plotlines and themes: an examination of the ethical and legal rights of artificial intelligences, through the struggles of various robots to deal with their “indentured” status. Ingeniously, Newitz envisions a future society where human beings, though born free, can also become indentured after falling into debt, or take on indentures to finance education and training. The complexities of the resulting laws affect a number of significant plot points, including a subplot about an indentured human being. Newitz has ingeniously combined a social satire on the problem of educational debt with an exploration of the ethical status of nonhumans.

However, the primary plot reflects a different issue: intellectual property. This has been much debated both in public policy and among libertarians; the emergence of the online world has heated up the debate, as copying and sharing texts, pictures, music, and videos has become all but costless. Libertarian views have ranged from support for indefinitely prolonged intellectual property rights to complete abolition of copyrights and patents. Newitz’s protagonist, a smuggler who sells pirated drugs to people who can’t afford to pay what the patent holders are asking, discovers that one of her products has seriously destructive side effects; ironically, it’s her efforts to set things right and make amends that entangle her in a struggle with the company that holds the patent, and with the covert operatives who try to enforce it on their behalf. I think libertarian readers will find this thought provoking. Both in the case of indentures and in the case of patents, Newitz’s story explores the possibility that some things that are called “property rights” may be unjust and exploitative.

It appeals to me, too, that Newitz’s protagonist is an entrepreneur; and that,  having discovered a problem with one of her products, she promptly sets out to make things right for her customers. Everything else follows from that, in the same way that everything in the Iliad follows from Achilles’ anger with Agamemnon. So the whole story is one of virtuous entrepreneurship. Autonomous doesn’t show us a large-scale transition to a free society, but it gives us a protagonist who has the qualities we would like such a society to nurture.

Our latest ‘Hall of Fame’ nominees span many decades

Rudyard Kipling

The Prometheus Hall of Fame Award honors classic SF that promotes individual liberty, and with our current crop of nominees, we’ve reached across decades of work — one of the nominations is for a Rudyard Kipling story published in 1912, and we also have work from the 1940s, the 1960s and the 1980s. Official press release follows.

— Tom Jackson

The Libertarian Futurist Society has selected five finalists for the 2018 Hall of Fame Award. This year’s finalists are:

• “As Easy as A.B.C.,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling (first published 1912 in London Magazine): In the second of his “airship utopia” stories, an unpopular minority in a future society calls for the revival of democracy, and a largely hands-off world government is called in to protect them from mob violence.

•”With Folded Hands . . .,” a short story by Jack Williamson (first published 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction): A cautionary tale of a future society under the control of entirely benevolent AIs.

•”Starfog,” a short story by Poul Anderson (first published 1967 in Analog): An agent of a mutual aid association spanning many solar systems seeks a way to carry out a large-scale project without taxation or central planning.

• “Conquest by Default,” a short story by Vernor Vinge (first published 1968 in Analog): Vernor Vinge’s first exploration of the possible form of an anarchistically organized society, set on a post-nuclear war Earth visited by an alien culture.

• The Island Worlds, a novel by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts (first published 1986 by Baen Books): A libertarian independence movement in the asteroids struggles against domination by an Earth-based bureaucracy—and its own disagreements over strategies for attaining freedom.

In addition to these nominees, the Hall of Fame Committee considered six other works: “ILU-486,” by Amanda Ching; That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis; 2112, by Rush; A Time of Changes, by Robert Silverberg; “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut; and The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, by T.H. White, as a combined nomination.

The final vote will take place in mid-2018. All Libertarian Futurist Society members are eligible to vote. The award will be presented at a major science fiction convention.

Nominations for the 2019 Hall of Fame Award can be submitted to committee chair William H. Stoddard (halloffame at this domain) at any time. All LFS members are eligible to nominate. Nominees may be in any narrative or dramatic form, including prose fiction, stage plays, film, television, other video, graphic novels, song lyrics, or epic or narrative verse; they must explore themes revelant to libertarianism and must be science fiction, fantasy, or related genres.

The Libertarian Futurist Society also presents the annual Prometheus Award and welcomes new members who are interested in science fiction and the future of freedom. More information is available at our website, www.lfs.org.

 

Author Victor Milán has died

Author Victor Milán, who won the Prometheus Award in 1986 for Cybernetic Samurai, died on Feb. 13, age 63.

Locus has posted an obituary, and author George R.R. Martin has posted a warm appreciation. 

“I first met Vic not long after I moved to Santa Fe in 1979. Outgoing, funny, friendly, and incredibly bright, he was one of the cornerstones of the New Mexico SF crowd for decades, a regular at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, the perennial masquerade host at Archon in St. Louis, a fan, a lover of ferrets and collector of guns, a gamer (I can’t tell you how many times we stayed up till dawn playing Superworld, Call of Cthulhu, and other RPGs with Vic, and laughing at the outrageous antics of the characters he created). But above all, he was a writer,” Martin writes.

“He wrote all sorts of things, in and out of our genre: westerns, historicals, men’s action adventure, more books than I could possibly list… but it was in science fiction that he did his best work. CYBERNETIC SAMURAI and CYBERNETIC SHOGAN were two of the best known from the old days. More recently, he was finding new readers by the score all around the world with his DINOSAUR LORDS series,” Martin wrote.