Reading descriptions of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous raised a bunch of caution flags for me. Its protagonist is an anti-patent crusader who does open-source-type stuff, and Newitz is or has been a tech journalist and EFF policy analyst. So it’s not hard at all to imagine this being one of those ultra-tedious Doctorow-style essays masquerading as fiction.

But the good news is, it’s not that at all. Newitz is fundamentally writing a story about her characters and the particulars of their circumstances—not just the anti-patent crusader, but also a younger boy and a military robot. And her characters bounce up against each other and even come into conflict, so the book can’t be that simple fictionalized manifesto.

Without getting too spoilery, the title of this book is deeply apropos, because—from a bunch of different angles—it’s exploring what it means to be autonomous in relation to the self, to society, to friends, to one’s own history, to institutions. It’s one of those books that makes you think about the world we’re building and the world we might want to build instead.


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