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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of COMPANY TOWN by Madeline Ashby


2.5 Stars
I decided to read this book because it is one of the five selections for this year’s Canada Reads.  Having finished it, I find myself shaking my head and wondering why it was chosen.

This crime story in a science-fiction setting takes place on New Arcadia, a near-future town-sized oil rig off the shore of Newfoundland.  The protagonist is Go Jung-Hwa who is a body guard for the sex workers.  When New Arcadia is bought by Lynch Ltd., Hwa ends up being hired to protect the family scion, Joel Lynch, a teenage genius whose life has been threatened by “a conspiracy of sentient artificial superintelligences” from the “deep future”  (43 – 44). Then some of her former clients and friends are killed in Jack the Ripper style and Hwa starts investigating.

Hwa is different from most other people in New Arcadia because she has no bioengineered enhancements while virtually everyone else has an augmented body.  She is supposed to be seen as the strong female lead, but I didn’t find her that smart or self-sufficient.  In fact, she comes across as a cliché of an action movie hero.  She barges in and intimidates and doesn’t let physical injuries stop her.  Yet there is an inconsistency in her portrayal; she’s either a badass or a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued.  Admittedly, there is some attempt to humanize her:  she has a difficult relationship with her mother and a neurological disorder has stained her skin and makes her susceptible to seizures.  As a result, she has little self-esteem; her physical appearance fills her with shame.    

Then there’s Joel, the 15-year-old, who seems too mature for his age.  He even handles a press conference with the adeptness of a seasoned politician.  And Daniel Síofra, Hwa’s boss, is just too perfect.  He is handsome and strong and sensitive and Hwa’s knight-in-shining-armour on more than one occasion.  A romance between Hwa and Daniel is inevitable from the moment they meet.

The narrative feels underdeveloped.  Some events mentioned seem to serve little purpose; the apartment break-in, for example, seems gratuitous.  There is a lack of transitions so the plot doesn’t hang together.  It also seems as if the book tries to be too many genres:  crime thriller, science-fiction, and romance.

I enjoyed the touches of Newfoundland local colour.  There are references to bakeapples and a visit to Terra Nova.  Occasionally, Hwa speaks in dialect though it’s largely limited to the use of “b’y.” 

The theme for this year’s Canada Reads is “What is the one book Canadians need now?”  I’m not sure how this novel fits this theme.  It portrays a single-industry town dependent on fossil fuel extraction.  Are we supposed to think of Alberta?  The corporation that owns New Arcadia acts like a government.  Is this book a warning about increasing corporatization where companies are like cults:  “’Is [the Lynch company] not a novel organization fanatically devoted to making possible the wishes and dreams of a single figure, based on his view of reality’” (225)?  Is the book a warning about where technology might take humans in the future?  Is it an indictment of society’s obsession with physical perfection?  [I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump in this description:  “he was far too tanned . . . His skin . . . was a hell of a lot more orange . . . Nothing screamed ‘I’m terrified of aging!’ louder than a mela-nano infusion” (38).]   The novel addresses all these issues, but, again, it seems to try to be too many things and so lacks focus.

I do not often read speculative fiction, so perhaps this book was not meant for me.  I found it disjointed and just plain weird.