Madeline Ashby, “Company Town” (2016) – The great David Forbes, of the Asheville Blade, recommended this sci-fi novel, and they did not steer me wrong. To me, more than the tech or the trippy stuff or the aesthetic (I’ve got the aesthetic sense of a dying eel), what made the few undeniably great works of cyberpunk great was the marriage of science fiction and hardboiled crime fiction. That describes “Neuromancer,” “Blade Runner,” and the work of early precursor Alfred Bester. This particular combo is surprisingly hard to do well. It’s also really easy to parody, especially when it winds up hanging its conceptual hat on rapidly dated ideas about technology- William Gibson’s cassette-driven VR internet, for instance. But it’s not just the tech- cyberpunk ‘tude came to be seen as pretty passé around the time the internet started to be an actual thing, and Neal Stephenson and his cohort came around to bury the genre. Stephenson edited a collection of intentionally optimistic sci-fi stories a few years back, declaring that dystopian speculative fiction was inhibiting our ability to dream or something. That came out late in 2014- hell of a sense of timing.
Well… as it turns out, a suspicion that technology-driven social change in a context of deep structural inequality, institutional stagnation, and ecological catastrophe isn’t exactly a recipe for happiness doesn’t seem as silly now as it might have seemed to people in the nineties who could get paid six figures because they knew what a modem is. So that aperture between technological potential and social reality that cyberpunk worked with is open wide for artists to walk through.
A long prelude to discussing a reasonable-length, punchy book! Madeline Ashby’s titular company town is a series of towers built around old oil infrastructure in the North Atlantic. Technically Canadian territory, a variety of social forms have organically glommed on to the towers, looking for work or from refuge from climate disasters- this could take place anywhere between ten and a hundred years from now. The protagonist, Hwa, is an enforcer for the sex worker’s union local — making sure that the workers come back from their assignations safe and that customers are respectful and prompt with payment — before she gets mixed up with a megacorp that comes to buy the city. The corporate guys like her because she’s a native, and also completely unmodified- no genetic tailoring, no custom-grown parts, no cybernetic implants. Among other things, this means she can’t be hacked.
Ashby weaves the sci-fi and the crime elements together masterfully. The guy in charge of the megacorp is a dying patriarch surrounded by decadent bloodsucker heirs, like General Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” – but was raised on an “anti-science commune” in California and is haunted by the singularity and Roko’s Basilisk. Hwa gets access to surveillance software that Sam Spade could only dream of, but her shady employers know about it every time she uses it. There’s a… I guess the term would be homme fatal? A potentially dangerous love interest, an all-too-perfect corporate dude (I imagine him played by Alex Sarsgaard or else Zach Wood- I know they’re opposites in many respect, lay off me) who may or may not be the one killing Hwa’s friends, and may or may not have been grown in a vat. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.
I don’t want to give away the ending but it’s pretty good and getting there is brutal. Ashby clearly has a pretty contemporary liberal social conscience but that doesn’t keep her from the crime fiction tradition of having a lot of women brutally murdered in her crime stories. There’s also a little bit of the “chosen one” stuff in there, borrowed from the dystopian speculative fiction that came to replace cyberpunk- young adult apocalyptic novels. But in the end, to the extent Hwa is special, it’s due to her embededness in a larger community of outcasts and the exploited, clinging to their precarious lives in the rising sea. Something tells me people can relate to that. ****’