AUTHOR: Annalee Newitz
RELEASED: September 2017; Tor
GENRE: Science Fiction
KEY INFO: pharma piracy, artificial intelligence/human relationships, bioengineering, anti-capitalism, sentience, science, ethics
REPRESENTATION: m/m romance, gender transition, android, mental illness, Polish main character, bisexual main character, Asian female main character
CONTENT NOTICES: transphobia, internalized homophobia, homophobia, abusive relationship, coerced transition
Autonomous was one of my most anticipated reads of Autumn 2017 and I was ecstatic when I received a copy on NetGalley to read for free in exchange for a review. To some extent, Autonomous did not disappoint and yet, to another extent, Autonomous is downright homophobic and transphobic.
Let’s start off with what’s good about Autonomous
For those who don’t know anything about the book, Autonomous flips between two-three main narratives. The first being our bisexual Asian female pharmaceutical pirate, Jack, who is cast as a medicinal Robin Hood type figure. She’s hardcore anti-patent and spends her time reverse engineering drugs to bring them to poor people who will otherwise die without medicine, but something goes drastically wrong when she reverse engineers a new work-stimulant for some extra money which ends up making people become addicted to their work to a dangerous degree. The second and third narratives follow military pair Eliasz and Paladin. Eliasz is a Polish military agent with a haunting secret, and Paladin is his military grade robot whom he falls hopelessly in love with while on the hunt for Jack.
So, we have a hardcore rock’n’roll bisexual, Asian female pirate protag, and a gay human-robot couple. Sounds pretty fucking cool right?
And it is… to begin with. There are certain elements of Autonomous that I loved. I have recently (accidentally) been on a bit of a robotic reading spree… A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and now this. I felt that Newitz somewhat contributed some interesting discussions about robot sentience, human nature, love, emotions, autonomy, etc and I also really enjoyed a lot of the scientific worldbuilding. We get to know a lot of detail about Jack’s work, how she achieves it, and explore the ever-expanding grey areas of science, health and ethics. There were some characters that I loved, namely Paladin and Eliasz, and that’s what made it hurt all the more when Newitz throws in a twist in the narrative seemingly out of nowhere.
What’s wrong with Autonomous? Discussions of homophobia, transphobia and slavery
Warning: there will be spoilers in the discussion below mainly because it’s hard to discuss exactly what is wrong with the book without being able to go into detail, and also because I think all readers should be warned of what’s lurking in the depths of Autonomous.
As I previously mentioned, Autonomous is set up in such a way which interests us in the blooming romance/sexual desire which sparks early on between Eliasz and Paladin. Human-robot relationships are something I’m very interested in so I was super excited about that, and also that we were presumably getting a human male-robot male romance which I was very pleased about. Everything goes really well, to begin with. I began to get really invested in the characters, in their relationship, in Eliasz’s struggles with his internalized homophobia. But then Newitz does something really odd. Instead of having Eliasz confront his homophobia and come to a resolution about his feelings towards Paladin, she has Eliasz CHANGE PALADIN’S PRONOUNS TO MAKE HIMSELF MORE COMFORTABLE ABOUT HIS ATTRACTION.
Robots don’t have gender and this is discussed at some length in the book, especially by Paladin who really doesn’t get what the big gender deal is about. It is mentioned multiple times that Paladin doesn’t care about gender because it is irrelevant to them. This would’ve been a GREAT TIME to make some really great points about gender and to actually have a gender-neutral character. But nope… instead we have Paladin become a vessel for Eliasz’s homophobia… he changes Paladin’s gender to female, uses female pronouns to refer to them, and ONLY HAS SEX WITH PALADIN once this has occurred. Towards the end of the book, Paladin even does some research about “transgender humans” and comes to the conclusion that Eliasz anthropomorphizes Paladin as a trans woman.
THIS IS NOT HOW YOU WRITE A TRANS CHARACTER
I found the imposed female gender on Paladin hugely offensive. As a trans person, I have had this done constantly to me by cis people (predominately cis men) who either didn’t want to acknowledge my masculinity, and so pretended they were having sex with a woman to avoid their homoerotic desires, or have had cis gay guys tell me they can’t identify with being gay anymore because having sex with me is like having sex with a woman. Rather than Newitz using Paladin to make a fantastic point about gender, Paladin’s gender only serves to make a CIS MAN feel COMFORTABLE with his desires. In fact, he forces a trans identity onto Paladin in order to achieve this. This is so offensive I cannot even… Writing this and remembering what happened is actually making me so angry. I felt extremely hurt, I felt stabbed in the back, violated, degraded, and exploited.
The last issue I had with the book was the parallels that were drawn between indentured robots and indentured humans. On NetGalley, the page for Autonomous asks “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?” As a white person, I don’t think I can comment too much on the issue of slavery and I would be really interested to hear from POC who have read Autonomous and what they thought about these comparisons. My impression is that this is not a comparison that Newitz should be drawing, especially when the book focuses on the indenture of robots and marginalizes the experiences of human slaves.
Overall, I am quite… upset by Autonomous. I went into the book with absolutely no idea that there was a trans narrative embedded within and to be quite frank, reading the treatment of Paladin actually made me physically sick. Please feel free to comment below on any thoughts you had if you’ve also read Autonomous, and also please do pass a warning along to any queer people, especially trans people, you know who are thinking of reading the book so that they also don’t have the shock I had when reading this.
Additionally, if you’re looking for a positive human-robot relationship with kickass queer representation I would highly, highly recommend Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, especially A Closed and Common Orbit in which the female robot is the protag.