Last month, debut novelist Annalee Newitz (who’s also the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica) published Autonomous, a fast-moving and thought-provoking SciFi thriller about a medical drug pirate named Jack and the people trying to stop her—namely, Eliasz, a human military agent, and his robot, Paladin.
The world Autonomous depicts is at once familiar and strange: On the one hand, Big Pharma still exists, and in this future, it’s killing people. But on the other hand, artificial intelligence has advanced to the point of consciousness. Robots like Paladin have developed self-awareness—so much so that they now are asking questions about gender norms and sexuality.
The novel also grapples with issues of climate change, which Newitz and I discussed in the first part of our interview, which you can read here.
In this second part, we discuss her thoughts on the future of gender fluidity, personal privacy, and biotechnology.
Your novel depicts a future where the boundaries between genders and sexualities, as well as the borders between nations, are all quite fluid. Do you think we’re moving toward a future where people will be more comfortable with rejecting rigid categories?
That’s a complicated question, because we’re becoming an increasingly global society, and gender fluidity currently is received unevenly around the world. Even in my novel, a character like Jack, who’s from the Free Trade Zone [formerly North America], experiences gender and sexual fluidity as the norm. But it’s not that way for others. Eliasz, for example, has experienced many things that have shaped him into feeling like he has to act a certain way, that he must have a certain kind of sexual desire. So I think the future will be kind of like today, where you can go to a city like San Francisco and see same-sex couples walking around holding hands, while elsewhere, same-sex relationships are dangerous or even illegal.
In terms of fluidity between national borders, I first started writing this novel with the idea that a world made up of economic unions like the EU would be terrible. But given the rise of nationalism the last year, I’m starting to feel like what I imagined is kind of utopian.
The one barrier that your book seems to argue should not be fluid is the one that protects personal privacy. Do you think that our rights to privacy will be increasingly threatened?
Yes, if we look at it from today’s point of view. But what we think of as privacy is always a moving target. If you look back 100 years in U.S. history the way that privacy was being defined was really different. I think in the future, privacy might be more related to time than place. For example, instead of going to a private place you would create a private time inside a place, perhaps using a tech that kills a bunch of surveillance technology for an hour or even a minute.
You did a lot of research into the current state of biotechnologies to write your novel. What did you discover that surprised you the most?
I talked to a lot of biologists – especially synthetic biologists – about not only what their work might lead to but about really mundane things like how they look at things in a lab. About what neurons look like under a microscope.
I was surprised by how easy it is to see neurons changing in a brain in real time. I imagined neuroplasticity—meaning the changeable nature of our brains—as sort of like a tree in that you couldn’t see it growing before your eyes, that it would take time. But, actually, our brains are changing on a minute by minute basis.
On a grander scale, do you think we’re changing for the better? Especially in terms of how we treat the planet?
If you look at the last 500,000 thousand years and then look ahead that far, you see humans as a species that could potentially be successful. We’ve done a lot of cool stuff! And a lot of really awful stuff. We’re not the only invasive species, and many of those species have figured out how to achieve equilibrium with their environment. So if you look at humans as another kind of animal, we’ll probably survive for tens of thousands years more, and the outlook is good. But only if you’re definition of a good outlook is that some form of humanity survives. In the next 200 years or so, we’re looking at a huge correction. We still have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and change our relationship with the planet, and I hope we do. I hope we have a Star Trek-like outcome where we go through this really hard time and then wind up with the Federation.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of new books. One is another science fiction novel, coming out on Tor books, because I love them and have had such a fantastic experience with them. It’s about time travel. The other is a nonfiction book that focuses on archeology. It’s about abandoned cities and why people have abandoned them. Turns out, it’s generally because of environmental problems, either on a broader more climate-change related scale or because of urban infrastructure falling into disrepair. It’s another book about culture and the environment.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Published September 19, 2017
Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor, and author of fiction and nonfiction. Her journalism has appeared in Popular Science, Wired, and theSan Francisco Bay Guardian. She also founded the science fiction website io9and edited Gizmodo. She is currently Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica. Autonomous is her first novel.
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Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.