"Imagine a Segway that could kill you and set your house on fire. That’s what a jetpack is." Madeline Ashby's blog post from May of last year "No one cares about your jetpack: on optimism in futurism" was my introduction to her writing. It's a stellar way to meet someone. Ashby is a science fiction writer, and a card-carrying (whereby card I mean Master's diploma) futurist. She works as someone who thinks about the future.
So besides wanting to have a dinner party under the guise of inviting her and other interesting people to listen to her talk for a few hours, it's been fun reading more of what she covers on her blog, and that translated into eagerness to read her third novel, the newly released novel Company Town.
The other morning, listening to NPR, my ear drums exploded painfully with blood and bile at a screeching sound so vile I was sure it was a metal rake on a chalkboard. Turns out it was just Pat Buchanan flapping his obscene sound-meat, and after I circled each ear with a pentagram to ward evil, I was able to suss what he was saying.
He talked about how the fine white people who built this country were going to be a minority by 2040s or so (actually, not, as Hari Kondabolu has pointed out, white people will only be a minority if you group every non-white population together and count them as one anti-white monolith. Otherwise, in terms of ethnic minorities, white people are still going to have bigger numbers). He talked about how the world was so much better in the 1960s. Which, likely, it was, for him and other white men. Not so much if you were an ethnic minority, or gay, or outside of a narrow definition of acceptable.
You hear someone like him talk, a straight-up racist whose deliberate and willful ignorance of humanity, staged for political purposes, is vile and reprehensible, and you can't believe that the wave of social change that swept this country in the past fifty years can somehow avoid getting someone's feet the least bit wet.
It turns out we can't get the past right. We try and try to suss out exactly what happened, but each of us grab ahold of some event now gone, and use it to buoy our own limited worldview. And if we can't agree on the past, which is full of events that actually did take place and have, more often than not, some sort of objective truth to them, then how the hell are we going to predict the future?
The future is a design problem. In design, as in art, you are taught that when we see things, we are often seeing what we expect our idea of the thing to be, instead of the thing itself. Life drawing is about training the eye to see what is there, and represent that. To draw a hand as it is, not how we think it is, since, from the time we were children, we have been drawing the idea of a hand. Like repeating a word until it is alien, you look at the hand until you unsee it, and then draw that thing.
So the clearer we can articulate and understood the past — not our idea of the past, but the actual past — the clearer we can articulate what the future will be. Because one thing is sure: humans love patterns, and we repeat them over and over. This is something Madeline Ashby gets at a very deep level.
In that regard, so much of Company Town is right on the nose. It's set on a massive multi-structure oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland — a city called New Arcadia. The rigs are a full city, where people are born, raised, work, marry, and die. Unlike many cities, born out of the consolidated, and sometimes opposing, interests of many people, the rig has a singular purpose, and is owned by a single entity, and that corporation is controlled by a patriarch of great wealth and power.
Which rig you inhabit gives a good sense of your social strata. Perhaps you're a rig worker; perhaps you're a legal unionized sex worker whose primary clientele are the oil workers; perhaps, as Ashby's protagonist Hwa is, you are the bodyguard to sex workers — you make sure they get to each job safe, and that the clients act as they should. You wait outside and make sure they leave at the time they're supposed to.
Hwa is a great character, ambitious and well-handled. A Korean-Canadian woman with Sturge–Weber syndrome, a port-wine stain across her face and much of her body, from which she draws a punk attitude towards those who might judge her on appearances only (and those, using augmented vision that can't process her face correctly, so she appears as a blur). Hwa has all the gumption and character of a William Gibson heroine, but her underbelly is better written — without being a victim, she's more vulnerable. She's better rounded, less cartoonish, and much more nuanced than many "tough girl" characters we encounter in modern genre fiction.
"Tae kwon do?"
"Karate is Japanese. I'm Korean. Half Korean."
His brows rose. "And clearly very proud of it."
"I'll learn karate when the Empress apologizes for the comfort women."
Although tough-as-nails both physically and mentally, she's not invulnerable, she suffers survivor's guilt from the death of her beloved brother, and a difficult relationship with her mother, once a K-pop star, now a pure expression of a certain elegant femininity. And also, an aging, but popular, prostitute.
Hwa becomes tangled with the 1% of the platform ownership, and is faced with series of choices, giving her an opportunity to better herself and her position. Our protagonist meets her conflict, and is sprung into the chaotic world. One character puts the sales pitch in, attempting to convince her to join, during which he explains his job.
"I change the moods of cities."
Hwa gave him the look she gave clients who refused to pay overtime.
"It's applying design thinking sensibility to urban engineering, on a day-to-day basis. Changing light levels in a building so its inhabitants sleep more easily. Raising the tempo of music in the refinery to increase production." He gestured as he spoke, and Hwa immediately understood that this was part of his work, that he orchestrated cities like a symphony conductor. "I'm told I have a certain knack for it. A sensitivity. Or so I'm told."
Hwa grinned. "There's plenty of muscle in this town. You don't need mine."
"I don't need it. I want it." He thrust his hands into his pockets. "And I'm willing to pay for it. Handsomely."
The laughter bubbled up out of Hwa before she could stop it. Maybe it was the pain ray, still playing with her nerves. Handsomely. Jesus wept. Men always sounded the same, when they tried to buy women.
Where are we? We're in noir. We're in a future-noir, a series of crimes rise from the cold sea, a series of solutions escaping Hwa, who is keen to figure them out. Lest you doubt our environs, Ashby makes it quote clear:
The massive blades of the windmill whirling outside cast her in shadow briefly, and then revealed her again. on a dan off, dark and light, as the blades of the mill cut and cut and cut through the veil of morning mist.
This is a genre story, clearly, and as such accepts (possibly revels) in the constraints that imposes.
Company Town gets so much right, that my disappointments with the book hover very close to its strengths. The pace of the book is break-neck. Scene after scene raise intensity, but they become a blur. We'd rush past an environment that was so compelling and so interesting that I'd want to spend more time there. I wanted Hwa to halt the story for a few minutes so that I could look around and give the feel of the place. I wanted the pace to slack a bit, to let the life, and the personality of the locals of New Arcadia sit with me. I wanted more breath.
No good author completely satisfies a reader — you want to be desiring when you read, desiring of more, desiring of the world spun around you — but in this case the connecting tissue was too cut away.
With the exception of a few characters who were drawn with precision clarity, many of the people we meet felt thin and only given an attribute or two by which to identify and remember them. By the time the resolution of the rising tension came around, I was a bit confused, unsure of the motivations, and not sure how much I'd have to backtrack to straighten it all out.
And while I'm sure those connecting dots were expertly laid and missed in the reading instead of the telling, I needed a little more breath and life around each of them, a little more time along the way to sit with them, to let them resonate with me on a deeper level than mental character chart.
It's a common complaint I have with crime fiction, so maybe my ask is bigger than Ashby's intent here — maybe she wanted to stay well within the lines drawn by genre, and let the gem of the setting be the ways she subverted the genre expectations — the ways she showed us she's drawing a real hand, instead of an expected one. To show she's paying attention to the way the thing is designed, within the constraints that every design must have imposed to succeed.
If you want to know what the future will look like, reading Madeline Ashby is a good bet. The verisimilitude of her imagination and settings will appease the most voracious Science Fiction fan. If you want a stylish future-noir with a unique and compelling protagonist, you'll find it here, under one of the most beautiful covers I've seen this year. And watching Ashby as she continues her work, both non-fiction and in genre, is going to be a fun career to track.
But I want more. I want more time on the derrick. I want more time with Hwa and her companions. I want the beat to slow down, the metronome to knock about 10 beats per minute off the clock.
There's a scene in the book where its explained why a ship is the perfect place to age whiskey. Whiskey is made through the expansion and retraction of the wood during weather changes. It pulls whiskey into the wood, and then expels it. On a ship, moving through climates quickly, you can age a drink in a fraction of the time. It's a great idea.
But if this book were that whiskey, I'd ask to open a bottle from the mainland. Something tells me it would be a little richer, and that's what I'm craving right now.