6 September 2016

Company Town

Image from http://images.macmillan.com/
Company Town
Madeline Ashby
Tor, 2016
HB, 285pp
Source: Bought online

Hwa works on New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig off the Atlantic coast of Canada sometime in the near-future. The rig has recently been bought by the Lynch family company. We don't learn much about their other interests but we're given to understand that they are very big, very rich - and less than scrupulous. Naturally, the community are concerned at the purchase, all the more because Lynch Ltd want to use the right to site an experimental fusion reactor. Not only may this be dangerous (there's a hint that ITER, the (real) international fusion project based in France, may have failed catastrophically) there's also concern that the drilling business, on which New Arcadia depends, may be run down.

As the book opens, Hwa is working as a bodyguard for sex-workers on their assignments, but she is about to be recruited by Lynch instead. Hwa's an endlessly fascinating protagonist: one of few New Arcadians to be 'organic' - that is, not to have implants, nanomachines, surgery which would allow her to control her appearance, tap into cybersystems and develop other abilities. I liked the fact that this wasn't her choice - there's no principle going on here, Hwa simply can't (couldn't) afford the tech (or perhaps her mum wouldn't: there's friction with Sunny favouring Hwa's dead brother and clearly having abused Hwa). Whatever the answer, the economic realities are never far away: the new job makes possible a move to a nicer part of the rig, and the constraints of being poor - with the threat to everyone's livelihood if drilling work goes away - are a major theme. As is the willingness of the rich to consume the rest of us to get what they want.

This background is sketched fairly quickly but the reader soon orients. Then there are death threats, and a serial killer begins a string of murders which Hwa feels she has to investigate, using the resources available to her through her new job. Ashby draws comparisons between the deaths described here and earlier misogynistic violence such as that of Jack the Ripper ("Welcome to Whitechapel" opens  a creepy VR experience that ends by pointing out that the perpetrators of these things do it "because they want to"). Male violence is never far away here with Hwa, her charge the (rather naive?) boy Joel and, especially, her former colleagues in the Sex Workers' union always vulnerable from a threat that begins to seem more than merely human.

Ashby has a very distinctive voice and can really tell a story. I liked her use of dialogue in the book, and the interplay between the ethnic backgrounds of her characters - such as the patriarch Zacharia Lynch, who has had several wives (but, Hwa, asks herself, why were they all white?) And it's a story which is all done from a woman's point of view with women as the most significant players. That still seems unusual enough to remark on, which rather makes me cringe.

Incidentally I wouldn't read the blurb in the inside front cover of the book at it gives away one particularly vital plot point about all this - a point which should really stay hidden till near the end of the book. Paradoxically, I think, knowing that point makes the story easier to accept, even while 'spoiling' (horrible phrase) a key thread of the narrative. It's hard to say more about this though without giving things away! This

The Thing I Won't Mention is one of several aspects of the story that perhaps don't make immediate sense in themselves. It is eventually resolved, but others remain mysterious - for example a visit to a sort of underworld (under-rig?) to consult a witch: this is a significant episode but I never quite worked out what was going on. It is possibly a book to reread, if you reread. You should at least expect to page back reread some passages.

To sum up, I'd say this is an excellent book. It's not perfect but hang in there and trust that Ashby does have things mostly under control - it works out in a satisfying way in the end.


No comments:

Post a Comment