Fiction, Fact And Future

In 2144, pirates and robots collide on Regina’s mighty shores

Books | by Stephen Whitworth

Annalee Newitz
Book Launch: Autonomous

The Fat Badger
Tuesday 16

Annalee Newitz is a science, technology and culture journalist who has written in all the cool places. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Wired, Slate, Gizmodo and, currently, Ars Technica, among other venues. She founded the website io9, and started her career with a San Francisco alt newspaper much like Prairie Dog.

Newitz is also a science fiction writer whose first novel, Autonomous, was published this fall by Tor Books. Autonomous is set partly in Saskatchewan (!!!) in the year 2144 and follows a Robin Hood-esque character named Jack who gives stolen drugs to people who can’t afford them. Unfortunately she’s being chased by a military agent with a robot sidekick. Complications ensue.

In an implausible turn of events, this California writer who’s stuff I’ve been reading on and off for 15 years has a Regina book launch on Tuesday Jan. 16 at a pub three or four doors down from our office. What the shit? I e-mailed Newitz asking for an explanation, and the following interview is her response. It’s been edited and condensed for publication.

You’re a well-known American science, tech and culture writer doing a middle-of-January reading in a Regina, Saskatchewan pub. Love it but it’s weird. How did this happen?

A lot of my novel Autonomous is set in Saskatchewan, so naturally I wanted to do a reading where locals could tell me everything I got wrong. I grew up in California, but mostly through skullduggery I managed to join a vast and unruly Saskatchewan clan. Using my cousin connections, I commissioned [Rah Rah co-founder] Marshall Burns to write and perform a theme song for the novel that I could use in a book trailer, and convinced cousin Aaron Murray (owner of The Fat Badger) that science fiction goes really well with cheap drinks.

NPR calls Autonomous “a love letter to Canada”. Why Canada?

I first came to Saskatchewan in 2001 to visit family in Saskatoon and Regina. Since then I’ve come back many times, rambled around a lot, and fell in love with the landscape and the people I met here. Prairie folks tend to be both humble and snarky, which is a great combination. There’s also something profoundly alien about the Canadian prairies if you’ve grown up in the United States. Here, the prairies are full of agrarian socialists and sundry NDP types. The U.S. Prairie states tend to lean very conservative. So it was genuinely weird for me to experience what we Yankees call “midwestern niceness” combined with progressive politics. It was like landing on another planet.

When I write, I am mostly interested in ordinary people. So when I set out to write about the future, I didn’t really care that much about the lives of famous people in future Shanghai, or robber barons in future New York City. I wanted to know what would happen to an immigrant farmers’ daughter in Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan in the year 2144. The future arrives everywhere, regardless of whether you live in a fancy place or a humble one. I’ll let somebody else tell the stories about emperors. My stories are about regular people in difficult situations, who are just trying to survive and do right by each other.

Also, just in case you think I’m sucking up to the people of Saskatchewan, my next novel (not a sequel) has a time machine that’s based in Flin Flon. Sorry about that. If you want to time travel, you’ll need to cross into the dread territory of Manitoba.

Robots are a science fiction staple but as the real-life technology develops I’d guess our understanding of them needs to change. What does this mean for you as someone writing science fiction?

My fiction is strongly influenced by the science and tech I write about as a journalist, so I tried very hard to make the future biotech in my novel as realistic as possible, based on what we know now. I even forced a number of scientists to talk to me and read early drafts to correct anything that was completely ridiculous. Sadly, the robot character isn’t terribly realistic — I doubt we’ll have human-equivalent intelligence in robots any time soon.

In terms of real-life tech, the most interesting character is Jack, an all-too-human pharmaceutical pirate from Saskatchewan who steals medicines from drug companies to give to people who can’t afford them. Honestly if we’re going to change our understanding of real-life technology, we should really be looking at healthcare and drugs. As medical treatments get better, I worry that access to those treatments will float further and further out of reach for most people.

When I write about future tech, I always try to think about the social and political institutions around it, and how those will change (or not) too. What will national healthcare look like in 100 years? We’re struggling to answer that question in the U.S., and the current political regime is pushing for a return to a fully privatized healthcare model. Are we looking at a future where the rich are living 150 years, cancer-free, while the poor are dying of infectious diseases because they can’t afford vaccines?

Should we be afraid of intelligent robots?

No. But we should be afraid of the corporations that make them.

Early in your career you wrote for an alt-weekly like Prairie Dog, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Like other media, alt papers are dropping like flies as advertising dries up. Can alt papers survive?

I love alt-weeklies, and I think they will continue to thrive — though obviously not in the exact same form they took back in the ’80s and ’90s. I have spent my entire career writing mostly for publications that have the alt-weekly model of free, underground content supported by ads.

I founded the blog io9 with Gawker Media and ran that for eight years. For a while, it seemed like blogs were the new version of alt-weeklies. We could write what we wanted; we were encouraged to be radically experimental. We were anti-authoritarian. And all our content was free! The only difference was that you couldn’t line a birdcage with it, which was really too bad. Some of that clickbait would have looked great soaking up poop.

Today the blogging model, and the Facebook-powered model of publications like BuzzFeed, are both struggling for the exact same reasons alt-weeklies did. Advertising is unreliable at best, and people STILL haven’t figured out how to make a free publication work as a business.

Indie media lives on with help from local businesses, donations, public funding, and a bunch of crazy people who care more about writing for their people than writing for piles of cash.

I’m glad there are still a few alt papers left on Earth. I have a bumper sticker from my days at the Bay Guardian that says CORPORATE WEEKLIES STILL SUCK.

This is a pub reading. What’s your preferred poison? I think Jameson is on special Tuesdays.

Whisky and scotch all the way. I like the brown drinks. Please do not try to tell me gin is good because that is obviously wrong.


Silicon Settlers

A smart friend told me to ask Newitz, and I quote: “What’s the connection between white settler colonialism and Silicon Valley douchebaggery?” Her answer was thoughtful, smart and, I thought, probably of interest to readers in a city with our history. Even though there’s no robots. Martians may or may not make an appearance, however. /SW

People in the United States rarely talk about “white settler colonialism” as an idea, even though many understand that Europeans came to the Americas and wrecked/enslaved/forcibly relocated people in the civilizations they found here. We also have yet to invent any system of reparations for indigenous groups or African-Americans. That means Canada has a whole language for talking about the relationship between colonizer and colonized that simply isn’t part of public discussions in the U.S. (obviously there are some exceptions). I think that makes U.S. institutions more vulnerable to repeating historical injustices, whether those are political or socio-economic or cultural.

Today in Silicon Valley, you’ve got this strand of libertarian conservatism that wants to protect the “free speech” of Nazis on social media, along with the “free speech” of violent misogynists, homophobes, and other individuals whom Trump has called “very fine people.” Powerful social media companies like Facebook and Twitter grow out of a pervasive, toxic myth in the U.S. that because of our free speech laws, all public arenas are level playing fields. Anyone can speak! The solution to hate speech is more speech! There is no widespread acceptance that some groups lack structural power, and those groups’ speech will therefore always be shit on more often than the speech of white people or men.

That’s one reason why the landscape of social media sometimes feels like the frontier, with all the negative connotations. White settlers and their bots are coming in and taking up all the space. When colonized groups try to reclaim that space with #blacklivesmatter or #metoo, it’s treated like some kind of dangerous incursion. But when alt-right types and Nazis take up space, it’s “protected speech.” And so on.

White settler colonialism is still with us; we carry that broken history into all our new habitats. One day we’ll be having this conversation about the relationship between white settler colonialism and Elon Musk’s first town on Mars.