This debut work by the co-founder of sci-fi website io9 explores issues of free will and property in a corporate-run future.
In 2144, genetics engineer–turned–drug pirate Judith “Jack” Chen has reverse-engineered and distributed her own version of Zacuity, the latest drug from the Zaxy corporation. Zacuity is supposed to get people feeling good about working; unfortunately, what it actually does is addict people to their jobs to the point of insanity. With agents from the International Property Coalition on her tail, Jack does her best to manufacture an antidote and find a way to alert the public about Zacuity’s effects. She also tries to find a future for Threezed, a young man previously indentured to an addict she killed. Meanwhile, those IPC agents, the human Eliasz and his new partner, the indentured military bot Paladin, grow physically and emotionally closer together as they ruthlessly track down Jack. Paladin’s feelings for Eliasz, partially programmed, partially personally generated, seem believable, because the bot is new, naïve, and hasn’t experienced a great deal of kind human contact, but Eliasz’s feelings for Paladin, which begin so quickly, seem more like sexual kink than true love; one almost gets the sense that any bot of Paladin’s type would’ve sparked his interest. And Eliasz’s insistence that the obviously genderless Paladin is female seems deluded. Newitz does an excellent job of drawing out the disturbing aspects of this power-imbalanced relationship. There’s also something very real about the shaky foundation of this unorthodox union and the uncertain future facing all the characters. In life, sometimes all we get is an ending we can accept, in which not all loose ends are tied up and villains never get their comeuppance. Ultimately, the novel is a vehicle for some very interesting questions: is there a difference between owning a human being or a mechanical being if both possess sentience and feelings and both desire agency? What are our rights in a world where the guiding principle is protection for the owner?
A strong and cerebral start if perhaps a little too open-ended.