Madeline Ashby took all the conventions of “artificial life form” novels and shredded them with her novel vN and its sequel, ID. Now she’s doing the same thing for the posthuman “everybody gets upgraded and has free ice cream forever” story, in her brutal new novel Company Town.
Company Town, which comes out in May, has a killer concept: In the near future, everybody is enhanced, with implants and other improvements that make them stronger, smarter, and more on top of everything that’s going on.
Except for one person, Hwa—and her lack of enhancements turns out to be her superpower.
She’s unhackable, and nobody can ever see her coming. She’s just a regular old-school human, and that makes her a wild card in a world of genetically enhanced cyborgs. She also has a birthmark on her face, which her mother sees as disfiguring, but which messes with face-recognition systems, making her impossible to identify.
Hwa works as a bodyguard, protecting sex workers in an oil rig that’s basically its own independent city state. But after the oil rig is bought by the wealthy Lynch family business, Hwa gets roped into protecting the youngest member of the Lynch family, instead. And meanwhile, someone is killing local sex workers, Jack-the-Ripper style.
The whole story ends up being not just about a single person who’s not augmented, versus a world of cyborgs and uplifts—but more broadly about the future of our posthuman world. Hwa gets drawn into a huge fight over differing visions of the future, including different ways of imagining a future with artificial intelligence and enhanced capabilities. Without giving too much away, the tail end of the book gets pretty deep into the weird end of futurism, including such oddities as Roko’s Basilisk (don’t look it up if you don’t already know about it!) along with some talk about the idea that “super-advanced artificial intelligence will eventually take over our planet.”
The anchor for all this weirdness, though, remains the character of Hwa, who is basically a pure ball of anger who hates her judgey mother and feels a gnawing sense of guilt for abandoning her sex-worker friends. She’s filled with self-loathing and convinced of her own ugliness, which leads to some heart-breakingly beautiful stuff late in the book when she finally discovers that someone can see her and accept her for who she really is. And her “superpower” of being mostly invisible to enhanced people only adds to her own sense of ugliness and worthlessness.
Late in the book, Ashby writes of Hwa, “She had been invisible—or blurred, or filtered, or hidden—for so long that whether she wanted to be seen rarely came up.”
One recurring motif with Hwa is the Master Control Room, something she imagines when she starts to get angry or freaked out. She pictures a room full of switches and knobs and levers that she can use to control herself, to keep her from lashing out and hurting people—or getting herself hurt. This image, of the only person who doesn’t have cybernetic gear imagining herself as a machine with complex controls, never stops being fascinating.
Hwa is also a major badass who teaches self-defense classes and is constantly beating the crap out of people who are bigger, stronger, or have powered suits. Ashby writes some darn good violence:
Her foot shot out behind her. It connected soundly. She heard the air leave him. He gagged. She threw herself at him, tumbling into the illusion of ugly patterned carpet, and started hitting.
We’re a good decade past the heyday of upbeat, or semi-upbeat, looks at a future of cybernetic enhancement, artificial intelligence, endless plenty, and perfect information. (Along with some skeptical, gritty takes, like Richard K. Morgan’s Kovacs novels.) Ashby is part of a new wave of authors who are getting some dirt on the unrealistic sheen of the Singularity, in part by focusing on a protagonist who’s left out of all the shiny progress, and in part by showing her torn between her working-class friends and her new employers, the masters of the universe.
The result is a book that keeps you thinking about what it means to be human in a posthuman world—even as it also keeps you entertained with action, serial killers, and crazy plot twists.