Riding Out the Singularity in Company Town

ashbyThe future is built on oil. Literally. New Arcadia is a “company town,” an independent nation state built on top of an oil rig off the coast of Canada. Like her debut novel, vN: The First Machine Dynasty, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town brings hard sci-fi sensibilities and big ideas about the fate of humanity in a technological future to a story filled with engaging action and complex, intriguing characters.

Go Jung-Hwa is on the low end of New Arcadian society—the lowest, as it happens. In this posthuman future, no one lacks for technological enhancements: cybernetic implants, mood stabilizers, beauty aids; such advances are so ubiquitous as to be below consideration for most. Money and influence have sway over the amount and efficacy of your improvements, but everyone has something. Except for Hwa. Raised by a poor single mother, the unalterable birthmark on her face makes her a pariah, unworthy of further investment (at least as far as dear old mum is concerned). As a result, Hwa grows into a tough, independent, but often self-hating young woman, working as a paid bodyguard for the sex workers of New Arcadia, the only people she truly cares about. She’s a tragic heroine in many respects, but she’s also incredibly capable—she’s one of the best fighters in a tough town, with a reputation that is going to get her into trouble.

When New Arcadia is sold and comes under the management of the powerful Lynch family, the lives and careers of its residents are left up in the air, but the tumult offers Hwa an opportunity. That unsightly birthmark confuses facial-recognition software, her lack of cybernetic enhancements makes her impossible to hack, and as someone on the lowest rung of society, she’s virtually invisible: all qualifications that make her the perfect bodyguard for Joel, the teenage scion of the Lynch dynasty, who has been receiving death threats of late. Death threats from the future. Outlandish as that idea might sound, the idea of artificial intelligence using time travel to influence its own development is just one intriguing idea in a novel filled with them. In short, the technological singularity (the hypothesized moment when artificial intelligence becomes capable of improving upon itself) isn’t looking altogether rosy—but Hwa may be perfectly positioned to take advantage of the situation.

The guilt Hwa feels for leaving her sex-worker friends to their own devices is compounded by the appearance of a virtually (or literally) invisible serial killer who’s targeting them—a perfectly matched adversary for Hwa. Beside all of the high-minded concepts about future technology and the singularity swirling around, is a lean, mean, action-packed thriller narrative, which makes absorbing those big ideas that much easier. Hwa’s struggle to find her own value is as compelling as anything else. Together with her hard-won compassion and genuinely badass fighting skills, her raw, un-enhanced humanity is her most useful gift. Reason and society dictate that she should be at a tremendous disadvantage; instead, she’s the only one prepared for what’s on the horizon. Ashby isn’t making an argument against progress, and Hwa has nothing against cybernetics, but her story serves as a warning against a growing technological interdependence from which we may not be able to disentangle ourselves. The questions that she raises become more disturbing as the book rockets forward.

The plot swerves radically as it races to a climax, but Ashby never loses control, even when Hwa’s personal journey seems in danger of being swallowed by events far larger than even the toughest woman in company town. We’re left with a strange hybrid of near-future noir and lawless westernfuture that’s equal parts noir and western, with Hwa as our femme fatale, tragic hero, and frontier gunslinger. If she’s not standing against the future, precisely, the foot planted in her too-human past leaves her in a singular, powerful position: she may be the only one who can fight the future.

Company Town is available now.

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