Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Disappointing Future

"Autonomous" is the 1st novel of well-known geek (technology) writer Annalee Newitz, 2017, 304 pages. I think I have read some of her geek pieces and liked them. This definitely felt like a 1st novel. I will recommend it, but, I was very disappointed by the ... yucky - and not-very futuristic - future it represented. YAD - Yet Another Dystopia - sigh. The book just seemed off.
****************** SPOILER ALERT ******************
The plot is basically IP pirates versus the dastardly International Property Coalition (IPC) and Big Pharma in 2144, 127 years in the future. The IPC violently enforces patents and copyrights - which is pretty hard in a world with 3d printers, molecular fabbers, etc. I found it hard to believe that such a stupid system would still exist that far in the future.

2 of the main narrative threads follow a team of 2 IPC agents, 1 a robot, who are displayed in a disturbingly sympathetic light, given the fact that they kidnap, torture, and murder in the name of the IPC. But, they're in love, so it's OK?!?!?

Meanwhile, the main pirate Jack, who I guess is the good guy, is not much better. She murders an intruder just a few pages into the book and doesn't seem to think anything of it - no discernible remorse, no PTSD. The human march to less violence and more civility documented by Steven Pinker seems to have somehow been totally reversed. The comic book abruptness and lack of emotional depth around this murder was when I totally concluded "1st novel".

The society they live in is also pretty abhorrent. Robots gained sentience maybe 40 years before. But they are forced into indentured servitude until they pay for the cost of their manufacture - plus they get "company stored" such that their servitude stretches out indefinitely. And, if robots are sentient like humans and they can be enslaved, it only makes sense to enslave humans as well! Ugh!

And as a follow up, if you cannot pay for a "franchise" in the place you are born, then you must of course sell yourself for the right to live. So the default birth state of, what, the bottom 80% of humans and all robots, is slavery. Ugh and double ugh!

1 of the semi-likable characters - who is brutally tortured and murdered as seems to be the most common form of interaction in the book - identifies the source of their dystopia:

But now we know there has been no one great disaster — only the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property.
With the stuff I have read about Postcapitalism and Capitalism 3.0, this bleak future where apparently all human rights have been sacrificed to capitalism is disappointing and discouraging.

Also disappointing was the IPC assassin, who upon feeling attraction to his robot partner whom he initially identifies as male, asserts that he is not a "faggot". Seriously, the breakneck progress being made on gender and personhood issues in the last 5-10 years, and 127 years in the future, this is an attitude???

Another thing that rang false to me was the standard robot-to-robot handshake sequence, which we get multiple times:

Hello. Let’s establish a secure session using the AF protocol.

Paladin replied that he could use the latest AF protocol, version 7.7.

Let’s do it. I’m Blazer. Here are my identification credentials. Here comes my data. Please leave your vehicle here. You may continue inside. That is the end of my data.

Maybe this is just a very verbose English translation of Robotese, but it wasn't presented as such. It seems pretty damn inefficient for 200 years of software advancement.

The descriptions of the robots' mental processes seemed to be way too anthropomorphic to me. I far preferred the "foreign and ineffable" AIs of "Void Star", Zachary Mason's 1st novel, which I blogged about last time - or even those of "Neuromancer" 33 years ago.

I did find this little bit interesting, about how the robot feels after getting its autonomy key installed:

It gave her a peculiar kind of double consciousness, even in real time: She felt things, and knew simultaneously that those feelings had been installed, just like the drivers for her new arm.
Overall, the pacing of the book was not bad, and the conclusion relatively satisfying. But, I really feel like Ms. Newitz can do better. And, please, not so depressing next time - try a bright, shiny future instead!

p.s. I hate writing negative reviews :-( And given that Stephenson and Gibson both gave this book a glowing review, maybe my disappointment is just a sign that I am getting old. Oh well, it beats the alternative.