I loved, but am a little disappointed in, this book. I am a fan of Newitz’s work (her articles, her podcast she co-hosts, and her other book) and, deep down, am a fan of this book as well. This is an important book — the first novel I’ve read that uses the word “Anthropocene” (sploosh). The book turns a mirror onto us to show us as we are right now and what we could become; a one point it references “an old Facebook database” as if it was nothing more than your grandma’s outdated phonebook. It gives us a realistic, and too-near, glimpse into our dark future if we don’t start thinking about these things (patents and big pharma and capitalism) now. However, it ends up being barely more than a thought exploration — what I am hesitant to actually call “lacking in artistic vision.”
Part of that “lack” (which is unfair of me to say but I have no better word for it) is the story itself. It’s a pretty basic plot: character accidentally screws up, tries to fix her mistake. Except the story doesn’t really end up being about her, I feel like. This story would have been better as a script, which it is being turned into and I can’t wait to watch, but it just feels like Newitz still doesn’t have a handle on the medium. You’re left unsure why the story was a book. It feels wrong to tell you to not waste your time and just watch the TV show, but I almost want to. Sure, she describes her characters so beautifully and her word choice is superb, but the pacing of the end of this novel felt a little off and sometimes there are scenes where you’re left not understanding why the characters just did what they did.
The POV shifts between and within chapters at times, but never feels jarring. You like the characters — you want to know more — but you also never get attached to them. More die in this novel than in Game of Thrones (just kidding, but seriously). Though you meet so many interesting beings and you get to know some of them, you never feel like you care about them. There’s too many of them. It’s a big story for just 300 pages.
If you take away the plot (of the pirate Jack trying to fix her mistake of selling an illegal drug by exposing an evil company), there’s a narrative on gender and identity that is very original, yet also incomplete in statement. Much like the book itself, it is just there. I think it tries to say something, but I’m not sure it convinces itself. It’s an interesting argument yet also the most unrealistic part of the book for me. There is a robot in the story named Paladin that the humans give a “he” pronoun too as well as masculine features. Except “he” has a brain (without memories, purely used to help him function) that we find out was from a female human. This is the point of the story where we wonder if an organ is just an organ, much like a robot build is just a robot build–do they have gender?
“Sure, I let humans call me ‘he’ because they get confused otherwise But it’s meaningless. It’s just humans projecting their own biological categories onto my body. When Eliasz uses the word faggot, it’s because he thinks that you’re a man, just like a human. He doesn’t see you for you who really are.”
That quote is from a robot to Paladin. Eliasz is Paladin’s master/military partner. All throughout the book robots reinforce that they do not have gender, that there is no reason for them to:
“As a robot, [Paladin] didn’t care what pronoun people used; as Fang had pointed out, gender was something humans projected onto robots. Changing his pronoun would make absolutely no difference at all. It would merely substitute one signifier for another. But then Paladin considered the implications of Eliasz’ facial expression, which at that moment hovered between desire and fear. Of course: if Paladin were female, Eliasz would not be a faggot. And maybe then Eliasz could touch Paladin again, the way he had last night, giving and receiving pleasure in an undocumented form of emotional feedback loop.”
Paladin, who is in love with Eliasz (and who Eliasz is attracted to), chooses her pronoun, but seemingly to counteract her master’s homophobia. She seems to change for a man, and it also excuses Eliasz’s homophobia. I find it strange that, this far into the future, gender and homophobia would still be such an issue. I mean, Eliasz is so respectful in asking what pronoun she’d like him to use for her that his own homophobia just didn’t seem likely. It gets even more complicated when you think about why he was attracted to her — I’m not so sure it was her brain, you know? Also, if he was so into females and not wanting to look like a “faggot,” why wouldn’t he pressure her to look more female? There were many opportunities for her to change out body parts and it didn’t happen. I really just didn’t understand this switchover. We’re given glimpses into his past as if that’s supposed to explain things but it really…didn’t (it involves a Catholic church vibe, if that gives you any hints).
The closest thing to this sub-story that’s on my radar is Altered Carbon, where people can upload their brain into any body and sometimes they don’t get to choose the sex. I feel like that story handles the trans subtext much clearer and better. Granted, there’s another layer added here when we’re dealing with robots/AI. I think the point of it was to show that humans are weird and are too obsessed with gender. But (SPOILERS) at the end, Paladin’s brain gets damaged and Eliasz still loves her without it…yet he doesn’t act like it was her human organ he loved. Maybe we’re supposed to take it as character growth? Maybe he’s come to terms that he loves a genderless being? I really really am not sure.
But it’s certainly the first book I’ve read that brings up the topic at all.
Other reviews I agree with:
HOWEVER at one point we learn that a member of Paladin’s body belonged to a female before she died. That is when Eliasz says that Paladin must therefore be a female robot. He suggests using female pronouns for Paladin and considering her a woman. Paladin, to make Eliasz happy, accepts. YUP. There is a genderchange simply and only because the guy is too homophobic to want to be in a relationship unless Paladin is a woman. HOW MESSED UP IS THAT?
I continued reading, thinking it would be called out or spoken against, or that something would change, but, SPOILERS: it’s never questioned. Paladin is happy with her gender change because it makes that homophobic guy happy. End of story.
The problem is the plot. The chase after Jack feels as though it should be more intense, especially when the two sides come close to one another, but it’s boring. Jack and the duo are merely walking on two straight paths that are slowly converging. Eliasz and Paladin grab clues monotonously, facing few real threats. It’s blatantly apparent that they’ll meet and it’s easy to pinpoint exactly when this is going to happen…The only interesting characters in Autonomous are the side characters, the rational ones who work regular jobs. And maybe that’s the critical problem with Newitz’s novel; it tries to be appealing by discussing topics that sound cool: pirates, drugs, and sex. As opposed to this, there is one side character, an android named Med, who has managed to stay with me, purely because their story seemed all the more ordinary. Humans adopted Med and raised it as their own, despite the discrimination androids commonly face. Med’s tale doesn’t sound epic, doesn’t involve any grand stakes like the safety of the world, but seems all the more real and relatable because of this; it’s a tale about fitting in.
There’s no real addressing Eliasz suppressing his sexuality or his homophobic use of the word “faggot.” We find out that a childhood bully called him a “faggot” once, and can assume he’s perhaps a bit sensitive about being considered gay, but there is no moment where adult Eliasz realizes that being gay or bisexual is not a negative thing.
There’s also no meaningful discussion about Paladin’s gender identity. There’s a lot of emphasis on how pronouns mean nothing to bots, and are entirely used to make humans feel more comfortable. So Paladin’s switching from male to female pronoun use doesn’t effectively create a transgender robot character, because Paladin expresses multiple times how he could care less about gender identity as a whole.
Paladin changes his gender identity entirely to assuage Eliasz’s fears about being gay & the fact that that path is presented as their only path to happiness together sort of throws up warning flags in my head. The narrative tries to spin it as the first real moment of agency Paladin experiences, but it doesn’t change the fact that the motivating thought behind the decision is “As a male I can’t sleep with Eliasz, as a female I can, so I guess I’ll be a female for his sake.”
I have to say that I am not convinced of the supposed freedom and autonomy that the protagonists find in this book. Moreover, I wonder whether writing this kind of happy ending is doing more harm than good, to be honest. The story would have been better as an even bleaker dystopia that shows the full extent of the problem and not trying to sell us some half-arsed solution.
Newitz shows that Paladin has the right to choose how to handle, and ultimately learn from, the relationships presented, which I appreciate, even if it’s not resolved like a Becky Chambers novel. Others have expressed discomfort with the inclusion of this particular aspect of the novel, and though I can’t speak to it from the perspective of an LGBT+ individual, Newitz herself is a member of the community (her partner is Charlie Jane Anders, a trans individual, and talented author of All the Birds in the Sky), meaning, if nothing else, that she has a distinct frame of reference that I respect. Just a note that having a homophobic character in a book does not mean the book or its author is homophobic anymore than a book involving a murderer means the book or its author is condoning of murder (this book has its fair share of that as well).