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BOOK REVIEW: Autonomy by Jean-Michel Smith


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2068, a group of researchers discover a way to experience months of life inside a virtual reality for every real day spent there. The advances they make set them on a collision course with a ruthless, patent-enforcing world government.

PROS: An interesting depiction of humanity’s first steps to becoming post-human.
CONS: Over-the-top villains and poor characterization.
BOTTOM LINE: This should appeal to fans of Greg Egan’s work from the 90’s, although it’s perhaps less polished.

I may have picked the ideal time to read Autonomy, a debut novel by computer scientist Jean-Michel Smith. In its choice of subject — humans beginning the process of uploading themselves into computers and spreading out from planet Earth — this story bridges an interesting gap in the future-history timeline that I’ve sketched in from Greg Egan’s fiction. I suspect that Smith’s work will appeal most to those who already appreciate Egan’s work, with all its strengths and flaws.

In 2068 a research team develops a new technology for uploading brains into computers. Even better, while people are uploaded their subjective time sense is immensely sped up. At the beginning they experience a month of time for each (real) day they spend in the Virtual; by the end it is two years per day. With this kind of time plus all the computing resources they could want, the inhabitants begin to make immense and accelerating progress on any number of research fronts. This puts them in conflict with world governments, and that conflict sets up the show-down at the end of the book.

That’s the short version. And that’s all pretty well done. Smith does a good job of describing different people’s reactions to this new kind of life: some go off and play the most amazing and immersive video games ever (and I appreciated the fact that those characters had a role to play in the finale); some edit their personalities to focus intensively on work; some are comfortable abandoning their bodies altogether; and others become very focused on making sure their bodies (comatose while the mind is uploaded) are protected.

This is why I say that Autonomy fits neatly into territory that Greg Egan explored in the 1990s, and ultimately fills in some gaps in that work. In Permutation City (1994), Egan explores the initial technology of uploading and people’s reactions to it. Of course, he assumed normal computer technology, so his characters were more concerned about slow-down compared to the outside world than accelerating speed-up. In that novel, only a few people could afford to upload, and even fewer could afford the computing resources necessary to keep up with real-time communications. Then we more-or-less fast-forward to Diaspora (1997), a thousand years in the future. Almost everyone is digital (and absolutely everyone is by the end of the book, since a gamma ray burst fries the Earth’s surface and renders it uninhabitable), and the characters load copies of themselves into small starships and explore the galaxy (hoping to prevent the sort of near-extinction event they had recently suffered).

With the acceleration of thought available to Autonomy’s protagonists, the progression that took Egan’s humans a thousand years is accomplished in about five months. And while Smith doesn’t necessarily sell the sense of radical dislocation as well as Egan did in Permutation City, he definitely gives a good sense of the freedom of such an environment and just what we could do with it. There’s a lot about this novel that is simply fun.

That’s not to say that it is without its flaws. Most of those have to do with the antagonists. Chief among which is the initial senior researcher, Dr. Larry Nolen (presumably no relation to our very own SquirrelPunk blogger). Nolen is an egotistical and arrogant bastard who immediately begins subjecting copies of himself to unimaginable tortures in order to learn more about the neural structures of the brain and publish his magnum opus. The way that the author ramps up the tension as some of these copies realize what is happening and make a bid for freedom is among some of the best writing in the book. When the rest of the community finds out what he’s done, Nolen is ostracized and vows revenge in the most scenery-chewing mustachio-twirling way imaginable:

Dr. Nolen’s face blanched. He was cornered. “When you idiots come to your senses, you know where to find me.” His eyes darted between the raised arms and stony faces. “This isn’t over,” he snarled, and vanished in a blinding flash of light. [p. 85]

The same over-the-top quality applies to smarmy international agent Roland Kavanagh:

He was something straight out of a movie: tall, with a dark, rich tan and a military haircut. Roland Kavanagh reminded her of a man she’d trained with, who’d risen fast through the ranks of the FBI despite a lack of intuition and a knack for missing important clues. He’d made up for it with ruthlessness. [p. 113-114]

“She” is FBI Agent Connie Sinclair. She is a black woman (a descriptor which has no apparent bearing on her characterization) and she is depicted as competent and humane in contrast to Kavanagh’s abusive asshole. (She’s also one of the only female characters in the book from whom we get an interior point of view, as opposed to merely dialog.) However, through the story she continues to be complicit in all the agency’s abuses in tracking down our protagonists. She even engages in a little hands-on torture herself, as she dresses up in skin-tight leather (?!) to infiltrate a BDSM club (?!?) as a dominatrix to get information from one of the members of the Virtual community. At least she feels ashamed about it. Unfortunately, by the end of the book it seems that about half her dialog is reduced to: “Why didn’t you tell me that earlier? We’re supposed to be equal partners investigating this!” as Roland continually cuts her out of the loop, and the other half is her supplying the insights needed to move the antagonist portion of the plot along.

This brings us to the other flaw in the novel: Smith’s rather heavy-handed use of the narrative for grinding his own axes. The FBI/UN/International Intelligence investigation is fundamentally motivated by enforcement of global patent laws, which have been stifling innovation for generations. Our heroic scientists are able to free themselves from the anti-democratic patent cartels and make true progress for humanity! Well, at least that hand-picked segment of humanity, less than 5,000 people, that they invite to join them. In this future, the UN has the power to boss around even the super-power nations that today sit on the Security council, and can compel those nations to use nuclear weapons. This is so immensely at odds with the UN’s current international role that I was not able to mentally bridge the gap between now and Autonomy’s 2068, even with the mention of a 40 year global economic recession and world-wide desertification caused by climate change.

Smith also uses the opportunity to boost his “Smith Sexagesimal System,” a base-60 way of counting that he claims is “concise, coherent, and above all, fairly simple for minds trapped in biological flesh to understand and use” (as opposed to having enhanced IQ in the Virtual space). The only added value to including it here appear to be (1) It gave the author a chance to Tuckerize himself; (2) Advertising for his book on the subject (available on Amazon!); and (3) Footnotes! To whom exactly these elements add value, I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

Finally, the ending was a bit anti-climatic. Certainly everything lines up the way it needs to, and the set-piece finale is suitably tense and cinematic–lots of explosions. However, there is almost no denouement, and few if any character arcs are wrapped up. This makes sense if you know that the book is planned to kick off a series, but that is not signposted within the text.

However, all flaws aside, I found myself returning to this book, eager to find out what happens next. Mostly that was intellectual curiosity, wanting to discover how this new author covers some of the familiar territory of uploaded minds and technological transcendence. It is also a testament to the solid craftsmanship of the writing: the pacing is good, the scenery in the Virtual is engaging, and the prose flows easily. Certainly I had far fewer problems with the writing here than with another recent debut-novel-by-a-technologist, Nexus by Ramez Naam, which also features technologically-mediated transcendence, and which attracted quite a bit of attention earlier this year. Overall I’d say that Autonomy is a book that is worth the time of a core science fiction reader, especially the kind who can overlook sketchy characterization in favor of technical appendices.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

6 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Autonomy by Jean-Michel Smith

  1. Thanks. Your review has convinced me the author may have some interesting ideas, but I don’t they’ll be interesting enough to overcome the flaws you’ve enumerated here.

    Why is it so many folks that have great ideas fall so short on the characterization and world building?

    • My guess: writing goodly is hard! 😉

      • Yeah, Charlie keeps pointing out great ideas are a dime a dozen, but the ability to turn it into good book is a trickier, and rarer, thing.

        FWIW, I found Nexus a superior read. Probably due to world building.

        Question for Ms. Burnham – does the book pass Bechdel’s rule at all?

        • I’d say no, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. I think there are four female characters who have dialog, and it is possible that at some point two of them may speak in the same meeting about a threat to their community, but they don’t speak “to each other” in a way that I think would honor the spirit of the rule.

          FWIW, I’d say that Autonomy has excellent world building within the Virtual world; I think he makes that setting pop even more than Egan does. It’s the boring mundane world that is less convincing, and it may be that that’s an appropriate choice.

      • But is hardly writing good? 😉

  2. As always, it sounds as though the appearance of squirrels would have made this book a much better story than it ended up being. Squirrels do make every thing better, of course! 😉

    *twirls mustache, then realizes there’s barely even stubble there now, sighs*

    *disappears in a blinding flash of light*

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