Audiobook Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (September 19, 2017)
Length: 10 hrs and 27 mins
Narrator: Jennifer Ikeda
I’m not having much luck with books this month. Autonomous was another highly anticipated sci-fi title that sounded very good from its premise, but ended up fizzling when the story fell short on the follow-through. Featuring a bold and daring female pharmaceutical pirate who makes a living bootlegging high-priced upmarket drugs in order to help the poor, I thought for sure this would be a winner, but ultimately neither the characters nor the plot turned out to be what I expected.
Meet Jack Chen, an anti-patent scientist who travels around the world in her submarine. Through reverse engineering, she is able to reproduce the most expensive drugs and make them widely available to those who can’t afford them, though her latest project appears to have hit a snag. The drug in question is Zacuity, which is supposed to increase productivity levels by making the subject feel good about work, making it a must-have for anyone hoping to remain competitive in the job market. However, a string of recent reports about people addicted to their jobs—to the point of insanity or even death—has gotten Jack a little worried. Horrified at the idea that her bootlegged drugs could have led to these lethal overdoses, she decides to do some investigating of her own. Before she can get far though, she is alerted to an intrusion on her submarine, leading her to meet a young indentured slave named Threezed who had stowed away along with his master in an attempt to steal Jack’s merchandise.
Meanwhile, the makers of Zacuity are also aware that the drug might be behind these tragic incidents, and they have plenty of reasons to keep the public from finding out that they are complicit. Since Jack’s pirating activities and efforts to find an antidote have been threatening to bring all of this crumbling down, they’ve hired a couple of agents from the International Property Coalition to take care of her and all the evidence. The two IPC operatives tasked to do this—a human named Eliasz partnered with a recently activated indentured military bot named Paladin—waste no time combing through Jack’s shadowy history for any clues that would help them track her down, and in time their work together gradually develops into a deeper emotional and physical closeness.
Autonomous gets us off to a good start, introducing a dystopian-like world in which nation states have all but disappeared, replaced by economic zones dominated by mega-corporations. As a Robin Hood-esque protagonist who targets drug companies to help the downtrodden, Jack Chen was someone I took an immediate liking to, and the fact that she smuggles her pirated pharmaceuticals in a badass submarine certainly didn’t hurt. Furthermore, when the addictive side effects of Zacuity came to light, they were at once so horrifying but so fascinating that I just couldn’t help but be drawn deeper into the story’s premise.
Unfortunately, that enthusiasm didn’t last. After a promising intro, the plot begins to fray around its narrative edges, abandoning the intrigue and suspense in favor of Jack’s relationship engagements and bedroom dalliances, both in her past and present. Granted, the author also attempts to weave in important societal messages and themes amidst all the drama, exploring everything from the exploitative practices of big pharmaceutical companies and their drug patents to the issues surrounding a commercial society that considers both sentient robots and humans as nothing more than chattel.
Indeed, there are a variety of relevant and topical discussions to chew on here, ranging from autonomy and free will to individual identity and gender roles. It’s all very interesting too, despite this story turning out completely different from what I’d expected based on the publisher description. Had the ideas been better executed, I might even have enjoyed it more, but in the end I get the sense this book is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Any points it was trying to make were either garbled or lost in the sea of noise, and no other aspect of this story illustrates this better than the relationships between Eliasz and Paladin/Jack and Threezed. There are obviously parallels between the two, but if there’s supposed to be a takeaway here about the complicated power dynamics and the role of gender construct in matters of sex and romance, I’m not sure it got through very well, coming across as rather awkward and insufficient compared to other books that have tackled these topics.
I really wanted to like Autonomous—especially following a recent string of disappointing reads, I was really hoping for a good one—but what began with a great premise bolstered by some clever and interesting ideas ultimately became a dull and lifeless affair. That said, my patience is not the best these days and it’s possible my mood was a factor in my experience. Hopefully others picking this up will have a better time than I did.
Audiobook Comments: Jennifer Ikeda is familiar narrator to me, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of her performances in the past. It’s a shame I didn’t like Autonomous better, but I could find no fault in terms of her narration or quality of the audiobook production itself. I definitely would not overlook the audiobook edition if you prefer this format.