By Gina Tost
More than half a century separates "The three stigmas of Palmer Eldritch", one of the culminating works of the great visionary of science fiction literature Phillp K. Dick, and "Autónomous", the first novel by Annalee Newitz. However, some ties unite both works. In the first, the drug is an essential element to support the hard work in the colonies outside the Earth. In "Autónomous" that drug has stopped being illegal and has become almost necessary for the labor triumph. In both cases, the drug is a desirable element in a society that overestimates success at work. The subtle turn of Newitz is to show how unbridled capitalism generates in the individual the need for external help to meet job expectations.
"Autónomous" recreates the dream of every entrepreneur taken to the extreme: that their workers are happy to work as much as their body can resist and that, to resist it, they must buy at a high price the drug that allows them to carry it out. No Yuppie in the financial district could have stopped getting excited just by imagining it. "Autónomous" delves into a social debate that has never ceased to be topical: the mechanisms of power to control the citizen. In "Farenheit 451", Ray Bradbury posed a future without books to prevent people from thinking and acting accordingly. Newitz envisions a society in which control comes through a substance so powerful that makes those who take it want to work more and more, becoming almost happy slaves of a need they have not even decided to have. The issue is scary, because more than half a century later, the issue is still topical and we still find no solution to this chaotic spiral. Controlling and directing the will and actions of the population remains the priority for many governments and corporations. The prohibition of the books of Bradbury, the fake news of today or the drug Zacuidad of "Autónomous" in the future are not more than instruments to obtain such aim.
The novel, also, raises several issues of great importance, tied in an action-packed thriller, which requires reflecting the reader. Among them, the great dilemma about the nature of knowledge: should scientific research be private or a public good available to everyone? Disjunctive issues such as proprietary software / open source programs or the patent system / free access to medicines are an essential part of Newitz's story. Skillfully inserted between two fast-paced plots, the adventures of the futuristic buccaneer Jack Chen show the pernicious effects of taking capitalism to the extreme in the field of biotechnology. And doing so puts the focus on a key fact that societies will have to solve in the near future: scientific progress is not as important in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry, genetic manipulation or the programming of artificial intelligence as the ability to carry those discoveries to those who can not afford it, the vast majority. In the end, the real concern is not so much whether "it can be done" but whether "it can be paid".
After the trips, persecutions or skirmishes of the soldier Eliasz and the humanoid Paladin, of the heroine Jack and the inexperienced Threezed, hides, in addition, a rich universe of new feelings, of unpublished experiences in the relation between humans and artificial intelligences. Deepening in paths that opened Asimov or Dick, the work walks subtly through the field of emotional learning of robots. And, above all, because of the difficult management of the increasingly complex interrelation between people and bots. It may seem a reality still far from the daily challenges of the beginning of the 21st century. But it is not at all. The European Parliament itself issued a resolution in 2017 with recommendations on this matter, expressing the need to foresee and regulate a scenario of coexistence between robots and humans. That is another of the great virtues of the work: combining the action and the best doses of adventure with the background of reflection that generates empathy and impact on the reality closest to us.
On the other hand, one of the paradoxes that Newitz develops in the book is the need of some humans to put their freedom on sale in order to survive and, at the same time, the ability of some robots to recover it to get rid of possession. It is curious that in the year 2144, in which the action of the novel develops, that contradiction is, saving the distances, very similar to the one that had to face in ancient Rome free men and slaves. In the background, centuries go by but the great themes of humanity remain the same. The great merit of science fiction literature is, precisely, to remember that what changes the most is the setting, the format or the packaging, but what really generates concern in people remains unchanged.
It is not unreasonable to think that, if the future recreated by the brilliant mind of Newitz becomes a reality, what will continue to really matter to people is the love between unequals, freedom and slavery, the domination of the will of others, poverty and wealth or the ability to exercise justice, regardless of the instruments that must be used to achieve it. In the end, perhaps we should look so closely at the predictions of science fiction literature as those of sociologists or scientists. Because, in fact, from the minds of the great writers of the genre such as Asimov, Bradbury, Huxley or Dick have come many of the futuristic scenarios that over time have become reality. And that, sometimes, scares and other times fascinates us. Where are we now?
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz is now available in bookstores.