Company Town

Lately I’ve been noticing that thriller tropes and sensibilities are turning up more and more in the science fiction field. It occurs to me that a consideration of the thriller mode is a good way to begin our look at Madeline Ashby’s third and latest novel, Company Town.

Science fiction and thrillers (more specifically, “technothrillers” — gadget-heavy thrillers set in the near future) have coexisted for decades, but have largely existed on separate planes. Plenty of science fiction writers have been writing thrillers, techno and otherwise, on the side, but the SF field has by and large not paid much attention to them. But in the last few years I’ve seen science fiction writers adopt the thriller style in their recent work — work that their publishers are explicitly labelling and marketing as science fiction and as thrillers. Recent titles carrying that double label include Tobias S. Buckell’s Arctic Rising (2012), John Scalzi’s Lock-in (2014), and Genevieve Valentine’s Persona (2015). Each is characterized by high tension, high stakes and fast action, as well as a strong focus on characters and relationships forged on the run (Jason Bourne doesn’t run by himself, after all), powered by spare, breathless prose that moves the action along (Scalzi deliberately wrote Lock-in without semicolons). The thriller is a fight-or-flight narrative. Cortisol prose. “Someone’s trying to kill us — run!”

Company Town isn’t being explicitly marketed as a thriller, at least not to the same extent as some of these other books, but it shares their sensibilities (including, and yes I checked, the near-complete absence of semicolons). Set on a multi-towered, city-sized oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador named New Arcadia, Company Town promises — and delivers — plenty of action in a gritty, noir mode. But it also benefits — and to some extent suffers — from doing several other things as well. Company Town isn’t just a noir thriller, it’s also a novel about post-humanism and the Singularity, told from a different point of view.

That point of view belongs to the book’s unforgettable protagonist, 23-year-old Go Jung-hwa, who works security for the sex workers of New Arcadia. (They’re all unionized. They have pensions.) Hwa is a fascinating admixture of kickass and broken: a whip-smart taekwondo expert, a high-school dropout, a daughter with a toxic relationship with her mother. An “organic” who lacks the ubiquitous body modifications and enhancements, she has Sturge-Weber syndrome and must keep her seizures under control; her port-wine stain is edited out by others’ augmented vision and serves as a natural dazzle pattern that confounds security cameras.

Three years after an explosion killed Hwa’s beloved brother, New Arcadia is bought by the deeply weird Lynch family, whose corporate goal is to bring about the Singularity. During the handover, Hwa’s abilities bring her to the attention of Lynch family factotum Daniel Síofra, who notes that Hwa’s lack of augmentations make her uniquely unhackable. Síofra hires her to protect the Lynches’ scion and heir, Joel from — his father earnestly believes — death threats from the future. Meanwhile, someone has begun murdering Hwa’s friends and associates.

The pace at which things proceed can fairly be described as unrelenting, and it’s difficult to put the book down — as one might expect from a thriller. But that pace comes at a cost. Action, character and relationships are strongly foregrounded, but at the expense of setting. New Arcadia’s physicality, the way the Lynch clan or their predecessors conduct business, even Síofra’s job when he’s not supervising Hwa — these remain underdeveloped, or at least not gone into in any detail. There are moments that are sharply evocative, but for the most part Hwa’s surroundings are like bokeh to a fast lens; that’s not where the story’s focus is. That’s not what this book is.

Those who read for character, though, will find a lot to like in Company Town. In Hwa, Ashby has created a compelling personality that avoids several clichés of the Strong Female Character, particularly regarding the sexualization of kickass. Portraying a disabled character can be fraught for several reasons (as someone with a disability myself, I’m well aware of that). In this case several tropes are in play: Hwa can to a certain extent be read as a handicapped badass with disability immunity. Ashby avoids inspiration porn, but the plot does hinge to a significant extent on Hwa’s disability above and beyond daily survival.

And while this book is a thriller, it’s still a Madeline Ashby novel, which means that while Company Town is a departure in tone from her first two novels — vN (2012) and iD (2013) — it still touches upon her usual preoccupations, such as artificial intelligence and millenarianism, along with a keen sense of socioeconomic privilege and status. When the Singularity takes centre stage, late in the novel, we may find it a bit jarring, as though high-concept futurist stuff was grafted onto a noir thriller at the last minute.

But we would not have been paying attention. Hwa’s view of the Singularity is of the heights, from the depths, and at a distance. Her perspective is a reminder that grand schemes to change the world have an often-forgotten human cost. Raptures, after all, leave many people behind.

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AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, June 6, 2016