As I’ve stated many times before, there’s no single correct approach to interpret a novel (or any text). Unlike our shorter readings, this novel will require some broader background understanding. Below I have a list of Major Themes from the novel that we will cover over. We should be able to get through them all by next week. Instead of going straight to passages, I’m going to assume you’ve read (or will be finished by next Wednesday, 10/16), so I’ll try to not pull out as many direct quotations and rely on our remembering key parts of the plot. For our purposes, we’ll consider these two time periods:
Jack’s past (2114-2120) and Jack’s present (2144-2145)
What could be the major change in Jack’s worldview from her early 20s to late 40s?
- Autonomy/Indentured Servitude
- Academia vs Industry
- Intellectual Property
- Politics of Medicine
- Gender and Sexuality
- Maybe some discussion on a specific comic book trope
- Showing vs Telling in prose
About the Author
Annalee Newitz is an American journalist who has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley. Not surprisingly, she writes quite a bit about technology—fiction and nonfiction. Here’s a link to her website (specifically her io9 stuff): Annalee Newitz.
- Jack (Judith Chen): Our pirate protagonist.
- Threezed: Former indentured 19-year old who becomes a sidekick (of a kind) to Jack.
- Eliasz: IPC (Intellectual Property Coalition) agent ruthlessly out to rid the world of pirates.
- Paladin: Robot IPC agent and Eliasz’s indentured partner.
- Krish: Runs Free Lab, a lab searching for alternatives to profit-motivated drugs, at the University of Saskatoon, which is most likely modeled after current-day University of Saskatewan.
- Med (Medea): Autonomous robot physician whose patients are affected by Zacuity.
Frankie: Paranoid pirate, living in Casablanca, programs/develops her drugs using Adder.
- Lyle: Former Free Lab activist and Jack’s former lover.
- Fang: Human Resources robot that works for the African Federation and gives Paladin robot-to-robot advice.
- Bug: Autonomous mosquito bot historian (PhD from University of British Columbia) at the Aberdeen Centre in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada (south of Vancouver) whose demeanor reminds me of a UNC Charlotte Global and International Areas Studies professor.
Obviously, this is the main theme of the book—what does it mean to be autonomous? Paladin comes out and tells us what “they” think about the “key” to autonomy at the end (I realize there’s more ambiguity with Paladin, but I’ll use “they” as their main pronoun for now). We need to complicate autonomy and critically analyze the text for possible interpretations. The inside jacket cover of my copy asks, “When anything can be owned, how can we be free?” Perhaps we should start there, but I need to provide some cultural studies/sociological discussion first.
Mark Fisher claims that “Control only works if you are complicit with it” (22). I like to consider Anthony Giddens theory of structuration when I think of Fisher’s argument. Structuration theory proposes that humans operate under a pre-existing social structure, which controls actions. Citizens abide by and reproduce the overall structure, but this means they consent to the agents of social control that govern them. Consider the following quotations from Giddens:
- “social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution” (121).
- “To examine the structuration of a social system is to examine the modes whereby that system, through the application of generative rules and resources is produced and reproduced in social interaction. Social systems, which are systems of social interaction, are not structures, although they necessarily have structures. There is no structure, in human social life, apart from the continuity of processes of structuration.” (Studies in Social and Political Theory 118)
Reflecting and advocating Giddens’s theory, James W. Messerschmidt summarizes that “structure both constrains and enables social action” (p. 77). I’ve mentioned that media reproduce ideology, normalizing it. Well, it was already normalized, but it’s impossible to determine whether or not the media (broadly) developed the ideology first or reflected the ideology. We don’t need to worry about a starting point, however, because we can identify instances where culture mediates rules, norms, repetitive behaviors, etc., we can claim that our actions are not solely individually motivated. We reproduce and justify the social system by operating within it.
Giddens theory hasn’t been debunked and, although there are criticisms of his initial theory, there are many expansions of his theory. Structuration theory is a useful interpretive lens for cultural studies because it allows us to focus on agent and rules. Simply put, our actions create our world; our interactions maintain or recreate the world.* Why do we agents follow rules? Why are there rules? In view of Autonomous, do programmed robots have any agency, or do they just respond to rules (their code—coding, program language)?
*Let’s hold off from discussing actions create our realities or worldviews…we’ll complicate this later.
Questions for Autonomous
- In what ways do the characters try to break the rules of society (really big Pharma)?
- What was the conflict for Jack that made her leave academia?
- How is Threezed the epitome of the agentless citizen even though he has his own blog?
- What appears to constrain Eliasz’s desires (at first) for Paladin?
Social Construction of Technology vs Technological Determinism
In light of structuration theory, this is a false dichotomy because it doesn’t allow for a spectrum of flexibility. We can point to prevailing ideologies that appear to “demand” a particular technology, but we can’t ignore that individuals and groups use technologies in ways developers did not intend them to be used. It would be a serious contradiction to claim EVERY interpretation of technology must focus on “social construction,” then, claim textual interpretation has a plethora of ways to be interpreted, including reader response. After all, readers interpret the meanings of texts based on their own experiences. While I focus most of my attention on the social construction of technology and also texts, I certainly do not consider these the ONLY ways to interpret technologies and texts. Social construction, however, is a very useful idea to have when beginning to critically analyze texts and technologies and, of course, our texts about technologies—Science Fiction!
- p.31: “Families would sometimes sell their toddlers to indenture schools, where managers trained them to be submissive just like they were programming a bot. At least bots could earn their way out of ownership after a while, be upgraded, and go fully autonomous. Humans might earn their way out, but there was no autonomy key that could undo a childhood like that.”
- p. 35: “[Paladin’s] service could last no more than ten years, a period deemed more than enough time to make the Federation’s investment in creating a new life-form worthwhile.”
- p. 36: “[H]umans should not be owned like bots because nobody paid to make them. Bots, who cost money, required a period of indenture to make their manufacture worthwhile….the vast majority of cities and economic zones had some system of human indenture. And Vegas was where the humans sold themselves.”
Academia vs Industry
Is academia (the academy, the university, the ivory tower, etc.) the real world? As students, we often think about school life as different from “the real world,” which usually means our careers. That is a traditional view of university life, one that makes more sense in the context of a non-commuter school. But even among professors, who make the university their career, we often separate academia from “the real world.” Doing so implies there’s something artificial about this place. Well, this is an artificial place, but very real actors operate within this institution and get real credentials from it. These credentials are a type of currency legitimizing the graduate as a potentially good employee for a job. The thing to remember is that people make up this system and legitimize it: Students enroll, professors teach (and research and serve on damn committees…), staff coordinate bureaucratic needs, administrators do something, and we all interact within this community. Yes, it is very real (and surreal at times).
The novel reproduces the academia-vs-industry “dilemma” mainly through Jack’s and Krish’s paths. Jack becomes disillusioned by the conservatism of academia, but Krish drops his “radical” past and becomes a member of the academy, who runs a lab by securing all that grant money. As I’ve mentioned before, don’t be fooled by the media soundbites claiming universities are full of liberal professors. The University is a gatekeeping institution, entrenched in society like laws, government, religion, etc. You might be able to point to professors with liberal views, but this is a conservative place with change happening slowly.
Questions for Autonomous
- Why did Jack want to be an academic?
- What motivated Med to enter academia?
- What did Bug ask Actin—Bobby Broner’s indentured, disembodied bot—regarding his desire to get his degree? (A very hilarious part, btw)
You’ll be in Fretwell 402 on Friday (10/11) with Ms. Rogers for some Autonomous discussions. Please review the notes I have up for next week. They will help understand how meaning is created in the text.