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What do designer drugs, intellectual property piracy, slavery, AI robots, and cyberpunk sensibilities make you think of? If you said Autonomous, the breakout first novel by Annalee Newitz, you’d be right. Autonomous offers a story steeped in real science as well as a fast-moving thriller plot that keeps readers turning pages. We spoke with Newitz about the inspirations for her book, its characters, and what she’s working on now— including her sci-fi podcast with Charlie Jane Anders, Our Opinions Are Correct.
Credit: Sarah Deragon
RECURSOR: Neal Stephenson and Wil Wheaton said that what Neuromancer was to the Internet, Autonomous is to biotech and AI. Both books immerse the reader in the interior monologue of characters as they race through richly inventive visions of the near future. How do you feel about this comparison?
NEWITZ: It’s super flattering that people are making that comparison. Autonomous is about what happens to humans after we start merging with computers and all the different ways that might affect us. When I was writing the book, I wasn’t thinking about cyberpunk, but I see why people see it that way. I was definitely influenced by that stuff growing up.
Who are some of your other sci-fi influences?
Two of my really big influences are Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler. Butler especially has influenced me at many points in my life. What I love about her work is the way she draws the minds of aliens—she’s very nuanced at it.
Butler also deals a lot with issues related to colonialism and slavery, and again, she’s very nuanced in how she does it. She shows how both slave owners and slaves are affected by it, and it’s not simple. It’s super-complicated, and there are no easy answers. All that was working in the back of my mind when dealing with Paladin’s and Eliasz’ relationships, as well as Jack and her relationship with Threezed.
That’s a great segue into the character of Jack, who takes in a slave (Threezed) and has sex with him, and it creates a strange power dynamic. Is that something you wanted to convey?
Yes… Some people think their relationship is cute. But I also wanted people to be thinking about the fact that this relationship is coercive, and that Jack having sex with him is a problem. There are a lot of creepy overtones.
Jack is a hero in a way, but she doesn’t make a lot of great decisions. At the time we meet her, she’s freaking out. She’s doing stupid things because she’s thinking this is her last week on earth. So, she might not have done the stuff she does in the book if she wasn’t thinking she was about to die.
Jack is the “Robin Hood of the anti-patent movement.” Who are the inspirations for this character?
I’ve always loved the story of Robin Hood and used to pretend to be Robin Hood. I also loved Han Solo and used to pretend to be him as well. I love the rake with the heart of gold — someone who is kind of a bad guy but who is also on the good side. I also was influenced by the subgenre of women who are bodyguards or hackers, films like Cherry 2000 or La Femme Nikita.
This leads into the reasons that Jack is a drug pirate. Tell us about the inspiration for that aspect of the story.
Early in my career, I worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, working heavily on a project about patents and how predatory companies were buying patents to prevent people from innovation. There are a lot of problems when drugs are locked up by patents—these things that seem so dry on paper have real consequences in real life. I was considering how these draconian IP laws have all these consequences. It’s not just about, “Do I get to have a bunch of free music?” but also, “Do I get well from this illness I have?”
Do you think there’s an in-between position between IP laws and piracy?
Right now, we’re in a situation that’s very extreme—IP maximalism. I think there is a middle ground, for sure. But right now, we’ve gone so far beyond that. The executives are getting compensated, but not the creators. When things get this extreme, you can’t just depend on the courts and legal action. You need direct action and activism. The rules are so bad that people have to break them, and hopefully that leads to reform and change.
The scientific explanations of the drug Zacuity, which essentially addicts people to work, seem so real and chilling when one considers its implications. How did you come up with this idea? Did you do a lot of research around it?
I definitely did research. I talked to neuroscientists about it, how it would work, how it would make sense. Nobody disagreed. They said, “Yeah, it could work.” A lot of people have told me they kind of want to try the drug.
In Autonomous, Paladin is such an impressive portrayal of an AI becoming increasingly aware of its own sexuality—something we don’t think we’ve seen before. What inspired this character?
Part of the inspiration for Paladin was just having worked a lot with computer networks and writing about them and imagining: What if the way computers talk to each other to create the Internet became how they talk individually? What would that look like?
Also, I’ve watched a lot of anime, like Appleseed (about a race of engineered clones). Many feature robots, as well as intense romantic relationships between characters that also do a lot of fighting. And the Cylons (Battlestar Galactica) were an inspiration too.
Particularly chilling was the interaction between Paladin and its masters, who have the ability to not only access but edit its thoughts, memories and emotions. It’s a pretty incredible portrayal. What inspired this?
It is scary. To me, it was a way of thinking about two things. First, what it means to be property and how being property is a psychological experience, not just in body but what you’re allowed to think, what kind of ideas you’re exposed to. And second, how much privacy is a part of your identity—that sense of being able to think thoughts and not have to worry that someone is going to know what you’re thinking. We take this for granted as humans, but it’s something robots don’t have.
We noticed some complaints by readers about the fact that Paladin seems to adopt a gender to please Eliasz. We loved that Paladin’s research of the topic might be an analogy for modern gender identity discussions. Do you have any thoughts on how readers might interpret Paladin?
Actually, I’m glad people had that reaction because that’s what I intended. Paladin adopted the pronoun for pragmatic reasons. And Paladin’s relationship with Eliasz is a lot like one of those first relationships we have, where you change yourself to please the person because they’re really hot.
Paladin is nonbinary. Paladin doesn’t have gender. For Paladin, gender is just a tool for communicating with people. But Paladin runs into the problem that the human she wants to have sex with is really hung up on pronouns and gender. Paladin doesn’t change at all, but our perceptions of her might.
We’re thrilled that Autonomous is being made into a TV series by AMC, the same network that brought us Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Can you describe the process for selling the project to them?
Credit: Syfy Wire
Basically, it was all because of Amanda Segel, who will be the show runner if the show gets picked up. She wrote some of my favorite episodes of Person of Interest. She read the book, contacted me, and said she’d like to develop this. I consider her to be like a cyborg wizard. She came in and set up meetings. Her pitch was fantastic. She came up with a great way of reimagining Autonomous as a TV show.
We met with AMC. Almost right away, they were clearly interested in the show. I couldn’t be happier because AMC is awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a cooler partner than Segel. We’re cowriting a pilot script. It’s real, and it’s happening. Of course, there are still so many hoops to jump through, but it’s really great and we’re really excited.
What other upcoming projects are you working on now?
I just finished my next novel for Tor, which will be out in fall 2019, called The Future of Another Timeline. It’s a time travel thriller. It’s very different from Autonomous. It has some of the same obsessions, but it is going to feel like a different world.
I also have some short stories coming out. And Tor bought two more books, so I’m basically indentured to Tor for next few years—in a good way!
And there’s the great sci-fi and science-related podcast you do with Charlie Jane Anders too—Our Opinions Are Correct.
Yes. We have a pretty mellow schedule because we do it twice a month. We just started a Patreon, and we’re halfway to our goal of having the show break even. We like having a place to share our thoughts. We try to be interesting, and we hope to keep it up.
And finally, we can’t resist asking—what do you think of Recursor.TV?
Wow! This site is awesome. It’s a great resource for people who are trying to find cool short sci-fi.
Annalee Newitz writes fiction and nonfiction about the intersection of science, technology and culture. Currently she is an editor at large for Ars Technica, and previously she was the founding editor of io9, and the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo. Her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember was nominated for the LA Times Book Award. Her first novel Autonomous has won the Lambda Literary Award, and was nominated for a Nebula and a Locus Award. She has also written for publications including Wired, Popular Science, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and more. She has published short stories in Lightspeed, Shimmer, Apex, and Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows. She was the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, worked as a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley. Learn more at AnnaleeNewitz.com or follow her on Twitter @annaleen.