Tag Archives: freedom

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

One hundred years from now, the United States has collapsed. Big Pharma is more powerful than most governments. Robots are as intelligent as people. It is in this world that Judith “Jack” Chen survives as a pirate, making illegal versions of drugs to sell to those that can’t otherwise afford them.

In this world, Big Pharma has made life “better” for those on the top. Drugs exist that can keep you young, can make you more productive, and can heal wounds. Biotech has also led to the ability to “paint” roads as needed. Most technologies are biogegradable — “somebody had left a throwaway mobile which was now biodegrading into a lump of gray cellulose.” Robots are indeed smart, so smart that they’ve been given the same rights as people. But, as courts decided that robots still could be “indentured,” they also decided that people could, since they are no smarter. A new form of slavery emerges. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, explores this world through the adventures of Jack, who has reverse engineered a new drug that has some nasty side effects. Once her drug gets out there, she tries to stop it, any way she can.

Autonomous explores themes relevant for our own times. What is the meaning of freedom? Both literally, in the form of actual bondage to another person, and more abstractly. In a world where the rich can stay perpetually young with their designer drugs, what chance does anyone else have of ever breaking out of the bottom? If drugs exist that can enhance your abilities, make you work better and more efficiently, what choice do the rest of us have but to take them? If big companies control these drugs, what hope do any of us have against being beholden to their demands? Many of these questions we grapple with now.

Take for instance, performance enhancing drugs. We are most familiar with steroids, and athletes who use them both to get a leg up and to heal faster. If all of the other football players are using them, how can a guy not be tempted to follow their lead, to ensure he is on the same playing field in terms of base level of talent? I’ve often wondered, if there was a drug that made me smarter and better able to do my job, would it almost be an obligation to take it? Wouldn’t it be in my employer’s best interest? In my family’s?

At the same time, as such drugs are developed, they are owned, by big multinational corporations. This is exemplified by GMOs. I’m not at all against GMOs from a scientific or health point of view. Humans have been modifying the food they eat for millennia, so little of the food we eat is “natural.” No, to me the bigger issue is who then controls the food supply. If companies own the rights to the genetic material, and we rely upon that material, we lose control of how to grow our own food. And, the next step is that they own more and more genetic material, not just of corn and wheat, but of animals, including people. Where does it end? Who fundamentally owns the “rights” to the DNA structure of humans? What happens when “every living thing and idea [is converted] into property?

In the world of Autonomous, the emergence of intelligent artificial life raises new questions about freedoms. Robots are smart and are aware. But, people still want them to work for them. So, they are kept indentured, or as slaves, effectively. However, there are pockets where robots are “born” free, raised autonomous. One character is just such a robot, and she struggles with identity issues: “How could she understand them [indentured robots], when she’d always been autonomous? She felt like her bot identity was incomplete without that seminal experience.

Autonomous doesn’t delve deeply into these questions. By creating a world in which these issues have become part of the fabric of life, Newitz has the freedom to tell her adventure story within the backdrop of this world, touching on these questions through her characters. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into the story, but once I knew the characters and the setting of the story, it flowed a lot better. Newitz raises questions that already face us and will only become bigger issues as we go forward.

Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey

25812667In the world of Brilliance, Marcus Sakey’s trilogy following the adventures of Nick Cooper, a federal agent, some people are born with extraordinary abilities. They don’t shoot laser beams from their eyes, or turn to steel, or anything like that. Rather, they have abilities that all of us have to some degree, but amped up to a much higher level. Some can see the patterns of people moving and thus can slip through a crowd without notice. Others experience time more slowly that normal, and so can react to events much faster than the rest of us. Cooper’s skill allows him to read body language and anticipate what other people are going to do, a useful skill when tracking down criminals.

In Written in Fire, Sakey takes Cooper on his biggest adventure yet. Without going into detail and ruining the plot, things have gotten out of control between the US government and the Wyoming enclave of the brilliant (the ones born with these abilities), to the point that war may be inevitable. Cooper has to both determine who is doing what — who are the bad guys — and try to stop it.

The problem is, it isn’t clear who the bad guys are. No one thinks of themselves as a bad guy, but rather as someone who has to change the way things are. In Sakey’s world, nothing is black and white — everything is grey. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. No one is evil, per se, but rather commit evil acts in the name of some greater good, at least in their own mind. However, sometimes, events escape them, spinning out of control.

I really like the greyness of Sakey’s world, as it reflects my own views of the world. Further, while Sakey has created a world of extraordinary people, the themes touch on real world concerns: meritocracy, the rights of minorities, the fear of a changing world, terrorism, the government response to terrorism, personal freedom and responsibility. While Sakey’s world is one of science fiction, the foundation of his world is our own world. He has much to say about the world, but in an even way that presents a nuanced and, yes, grey picture that maybe can help promote dialog.

A couple of quotes that I liked that illustrate this point:

Mostly, people believe they’re doing the right thing. Even the ones who are doing bad things usually believe they’re heroes, that whatever terrible thing they’re doing is to prevent something worse.

When people are scared, it’s easy for them to decide anything different is evil.

He’s broken. Most real-life villains are. Usually it’s not their fault. But that doesn’t matter.

That’s the risk of summoning a demon; they don’t tend to follow orders.

Written in Fire is a fitting end to the Brilliance trilogy, taking it to the greatest of heights and the deepest of depths. It is a great ride that provokes reflection, the way all great fiction should.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

9781611099690_custom-9ba9bdb4ab35cd10ff6b1ac6d3ca5b74c98bf343-s6-c30The conceit of stories like the X-Men is that there are people who are born that are different than the rest of us, and that difference makes them both special as well as a potential threat. In the case of the X-Men, they have extraordinary powers — shooting eye beams, controlling the weather, walking through walls, turning into metal — that give them enormous advantages over the rest of humanity. In some ways, that is the same conceit of Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance, though here it is treated in a much more subtle and realistic manner.

Imagine a world where, instead of being born with the ability to fly, the special people do have extraordinary talents, but they are essentially ampped up versions of things all of us can do. Recognize body language, but so well that you can anticipate the actions of others. See patterns in the movement of people that you can walk through crowds of people without being noticed. Or identify patterns in computer code such that you can make the computer do whatever you want. People like this would be viewed as both an asset and a threat. Or both at the same time. At some point, it would be inevitable that the government becomes involved in the lives of these people. And some of them would rebel. That is the basic premise of Brilliance.

Some of these people, so-called brilliants, in an effort to make sure their lives are peaceful, have decided to work on the side of the devil, so to speak, working for the government to keep other brilliants in check. And keeping them in check means some heavy handed involvement by the government, including taking potentially brilliant children to special schools. One of these agents, Cooper, is on the trail of a brilliant terrorist. But, as he discovers, reality is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than his black and white view of the world.

My understanding is that this is the first in a series of novels developing and exploring this world of brilliant people. If the first one is any indicator, we are in for a dramatic ride that touches on themes such as individual freedom and responsibility, the role of government, and how we treat people who are different than ourselves.