by Madeline Ashby
In the future Ashby envisions, bioaugmentation has become so universal that Go Jung-Hwa, unedited and suffering from congenital Sturge-Weber Syndrome, is effectively unique, a black swan in a world where everyone else's perceptions and interactions are fully regulated by augmented reality. Hwa is just trying to live her life, working as a bodyguard for the local sex workers' union and teaching them self-defense on the side when her duties bring her into contact with Daniel Siofra, a mysterious fixer who works directly under the man who now owns the whole town. Suddenly, Hwa finds herself tasked with protecting a vulnerable child while around her, her old start dying under horrific circumstances.
The strongest aspect of Company Town is the worldbuilding. Ashby's new future is gritty and immersive, familiar and yet imbued with an alien strangeness. The story takes place in a near-future mining town in Canada that is undergoing the same sort of rusting as so many current industrial towns. The single-product economy is on the brink of failure, and while the town's new owner/investor may bring it back to life, everyone in the town is on edge about the potential cost. However familiar the social and economic situation might be, the people themselves walk around in augmented reality, their vision tagged with identifying information of the people they see, their forms obscured and defined by virtual reality instead of physicality. Botflies--no, not those botflies; these are flying robots-- buzz around everywhere, acting as tiny and ubiquitous paparazzi. A post-human civilization seems to be just on the horizon.
The concept is fascinating and the book itself is packed with nonstop action. However, I found the plot itself rather more problematic, from the core concept to the solution of the underlying mystery. I felt that not even the basic setup could withstand cursory examination; for example, I was completely puzzled about why Hwa, hired as a bodyguard for a kid, ends up attending school with him as a fellow student rather than actually guarding him. Everyone knows what she's doing, so it's not a disguise, and having your bodyguard take classes and do homework seems a great way to keep them distracted. Outside of school, Hwa spends basically all the time on her own rather than actually guarding the kid, again without any explanation. Not only that, but Hwa herself ends up as a target, and even though her very presence puts her charge in danger, they keep her as his bodyguard, with no explanation for why anyone would keep a bodyguard who is clearly getting the body into danger rather than guarding it.(show spoiler)
Very little else about the plot could bear scrutiny, from the action scenes to the final reveal.(show spoiler)
The book is also a good example of a common device used in mysteries that I call "plot-driven obscurity," where characters withhold facts or wrap them in cryptic statements solely because doing otherwise would reveal the mystery.(show spoiler)
However, such issues aren't out of the ordinary for thrillers, and if you're in the right mood, I think they can easily be overlooked.
Plot issues aside, Company Town is an interesting story tackling some compelling issues ranging from post-human life to the politics of prostitution. Throughout, Hwa struggles to be seen--and to see herself-- as a person instead of a disorder. She also fights to come to terms with her frustratingly appearance-obsessed mother, and a culture in which people prefer to edit her out rather than see her disfigurement. Despite a few plot weaknesses, Company Town is an interesting scifi read with an interesting protagonist and a vivid vision of a near future.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~