Review | Autonomy, by Victoria Hetherington

AutonomyThe year is 2037. Canada has been annexed by the US because of conflict with Russia. Abortion has been declared illegal, and electronic devices record our every move. Climate change has gone to crisis levels, and people in the Arctic are dying of heat. AI technology is developing sentience. And a deadly Illness (capitalization from the novel) is spreading across the world, transmittable by eye contact.

Amongst all this is a university therapist, Slaton, and an AI, Julian, who develop feelings of love for each other. They meet when Slaton is detained at the US border for encouraging a student to have an abortion (she was framed). Julian follows her home via a subdural earpiece she got at the border hospital (creepy). They talk, get to know each other, and eventually, Julian gives her advice on how to survive the Illness.

Autonomy by Victoria Hetherington is the kind of book I had to sit with for a while after reading, just to process what I just read. I started out not liking the book very much — it was well-written and it touched on important contemporary topics. But, in the first half at least, it lacked bite. The issues Hetherington explores aren’t really anything new. As terrible as it may be to feel desensitized about serious topics like women’s reproductive health and Big Brother technology, the world of the novel didn’t feel very special, and I wasn’t quite getting immersed in it.

Worse, for the first half, the narrative deals with its themes with such a gentle, almost perfunctory, touch that the book didn’t really grab me. One example I found particularly egregious was how the novel treats Slaton being framed for encouraging abortion. Much fuss is made over how Slaton needs to protect both herself and the student who framed her from police, because abortion is such a heinous crime in this world, and the potential consequences are terrifying. There’s even a frantic dash to the US-Canada border, and a random encounter with a drug dealer.

Except then the consequences do come, and… they were pretty meh. Slaton needs to spend a week in a detention centre, do talk therapy with an AI… and that’s it. After that week, she’s free to go. The food is crappy, and there’s a minor subplot with.a creepy cellmate, but for the most part, those scenes play out more like pleasant conversations than Orange is the New Black.

So up until the halfway mark, I was ready to write a blog post about how this was a book I’d imagine would be nominated for a Giller and may even win. It was a book I’d imagine being taught in university English classes, and being discussed by some book clubs. But it wasn’t a book that was going to stay with me. It’s a good book, but ultimately just okay.

And then Slaton meets Peter. Slaton rightly points out that one’s odds of surviving the global Illness will likely align with the level of one’s wealth. She has only $112 left in her bank account, so on Julian’s advice, she goes to find a sugar daddy. And in the world of sugar daddies, Peter is a pretty good catch. He’s kind, the sex (at the start at least) is pretty good, and his expectations for a wife are pretty reasonable. Their relationship isn’t quite the stuff of romance, but on the whole, Slaton pretty much got what she was looking for when she married him. 

And this is when I found the novel got interesting. Because of course, the rather mundane comfort of Slaton and Peter’s lives is far from perfect. There’s problems you may expect: Julian gets jealous (in an AI way) and leaves; Slaton gets lonely and starts to realize Peter’s flaws. Her thoughts turn downright cruel, though thankfully (for Peter’s sake), she never voices these thoughts out loud. She thinks of how Peter smells like old age and diabetes, notices the effects of aging on his body (he’s mid-50s, she’s mid-30s), and in a moment even she is ashamed of, imagines him getting cancer. She gets lost in the ennui of the wealthy, and ensconced within a gated community outside Toronto, she misses her friends and city life. It’s all a bit “poor little rich girl” at times, but also an intriguing contemplation on how much one is willing to give up to ensure one’s own safety.

But where I find the novel really hits its stride is when tendrils of the Illness begin to make their way into the bubble of their gated community. I absolutely love how Hetherington handles this part of the story. Far from turning into the usual plague dystopian novel, Autonomy maintains its contemplative, philosophical core. Hetherington doles out moments of harsh reality very sparingly, and the novel becomes all the richer for it. Because suddenly, all the quiet, contemplative conversations leading up to this point coalesce into a broader, deeper philosophical discourse about human existence. What is our role as a human being? What are our responsibilities? What privileges come with having a body, and what experiences does our body allow us to have?

So much of these are questions that come in many other stories about AI sentience, but by framing them within a global pandemic, and within more pointed observations around financial and class inequities, Hetherington adds several new layers to the conversation. And by having their protagonist experience the stark contrast between her life in a gated community basically burying its head in the sand about the Illness, and the lives of people in a city that’s been dealing with the day-to-day realities of the Illness, Hetherington explores even more complexities around these questions about being human.

Part of me wishes the story had been this powerful from the very beginning; another part of me appreciates the author’s sleight of hand. Autonomy underwhelmed me until it didn’t. I can’t quite fully grasp all the thoughts and questions I have after reading this novel, but I admit it’s given me pause. It’s a good novel — not quite a gut punch, but deliberately so. Autonomy invites you to look deeper, and perhaps give it a re-read.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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