by Madeline Ashby
Tor Books (May 17, 2016)
Ever wondered what it would be like to live on a floating town of a mining station far from land? Or, more importantly, what would it mean to be the rare completely organic person among variously augmented people? Madeline Ashby did, and undoubtedly asked herself many other interesting questions when writing her newest novel Company Town.
It’s also good news for everyone who liked Ashby’s novelette “Come From Away” in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology UPGRADED. Hwa, the sympathetic down-to-earth heroine of the story, is back as the protagonist of Company Town and the novel actually includes the novelette as an integral part of the wider plot. Another story featuring Hwa before was published in Dave Maass’ anthology Pwning Tomorrow: Stories from the Electronic Frontier.
Hwa works as a bodyguard for a sex workers’ union, until she prevents a presumed attack and receives an offer she can’t refuse: to become the bodyguard of a young corporate heir Joel Lynch, a member of the family who has recently bought the city of New Arcadia. After an accident which killed Hwa’s brother and plunged the town into deeper recession, it seems that things might be turning the other way. But are the Lynches really a salvation for the town, or just the newest oppressors? Who is their urban tactics expert Daniel Síofra? Are the threats to Joel Lynch’s life really coming from the future? And who is behind the series of murders targeting Hwa’s friends? Mystery, thriller, many-faceted science fiction and a bit of romance await and will take you to an oil rig, an alcohol-storing ship, a school, a dangerous elevator, “places under bridges” and much more.
Ashby created a believable, well-depicted world full of lively characters in Company Town. Hwa’s wry humor, common sense, honesty and courage make her a sympathetic character, and her vulnerability under the mask of the thick-skinned tough girl even more so; unlike some characters who really have that thick skin, she is more believable and interesting. There is no other character in the book who could compare to the depiction of Hwa, which is understandable as the story centers around her, but they all seem real, people with a past and hoping for a future, be it Hwa’s friends Eileen, Daniel, Joel, Hwa’s mother or the myriad characters we only glimpse. The major exception is Joel’s father and head of the Lynch family, who is obsessed with life everlasting and sometimes seems a caricature of an evil corporate overlord.
Ashby’s take on the future of genetic enhancement, biotech and cybernetic augmentation, a major element of the story, shows both sides of the coin: the accelerated healing, sensory extension and all the advantages we’ve seen so often, as well as the widening gap between people who can afford the best and those who can’t, and the increasingly indifferent bordering on sociopathic attitude of the first towards the second. Hwa is a perfect example of the latter group: born in a poor environment with a Sturge-Weber syndrome, leaving her with a dark stain across her body, epilepsy and increased risk of many other health complications. Her face broken into a pattern either becomes blurred in less-quality image processing, or edited out. But technology is not the culprit here; it’s the way many people use it.
The author’s skilled worldbuilding and characters will draw most readers in; the mystery plot will hook them. The line of the plot centered around Hwa’s investigation of murders of several of her friends from the sex workers’ union seemed the strongest part of the story to me, not speaking of Ashby’s winks at the reader by Mr. Moore and Mr. Capote in the VR program about serial killings.
The book also had some drawbacks for me, particularly the final revelations. However, I can’t explain them without spoilers, so if you want to avoid them, please skip the rest of this paragraph and the next one, and go right to the conclusion of the review. There: The one part that didn’t quite fit for me was the time travel element. The story would keep all its weight and might hold together even more tightly if it avoided the trope of a killer come from the future. Moreover, although the antagonist tries to explain everything, some things don’t quite add up, or I possibly missed them. Why stage a final confrontation with Hwa, Joel and Daniel, if the antagonist could have killed Hwa and Daniel and attempted to destroy their image as heroes in Joel’s mind? The outcome couldn’t have possibly been worse than what he did. Also, if we take the time travel element further, why doesn’t he accelerate innovation within the Lynch corporation, Joel-or-no-Joel? Why be so stubbornly focused on just one piece of the puzzle? Perhaps I’m too picky because I’ve too recently read William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which ditched explanations of time travel and many different timelines completely but explored the consequences truly brilliantly. While Company Town‘s antagonist works as an embodiment of venture capital and big data gone horribly wrong, he doesn’t quite work as a believable villain; he’s a puppet instead of a character.
Another thing that didn’t quite add up for me was why the elder Lynch planned his transition into specifically Síofra’s body. Síofra had been a success; good. He served the Lynch family for ten years and became a valuable asset. Why destroy him now, instead of abducting another body? It didn’t seem like it would be a problem for Lynch to continue the Changeling program and choose someone else. And even if he insisted on Daniel, why didn’t he transfer him out of sight before the transition? This way, Lynch just asked for Hwa to come after him…
Ashby did an admirable job connecting all the different plot elements, but at some moments it felt like chasing too many rabbits at once. Nevertheless, other readers might perceive it differently — particularly because of how difficult it is to merge so many engaging themes, and Ashby deserves much praise for managing them so well—and it doesn’t change the fact that Company Town is a clever, fast-paced, fun read especially because of its fantastic heroine.
© 2016 by Julie Novakova
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