Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.
Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.
A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.
Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.
Rule 34 is the kind of Charles Stross book I like. It’s Edinburgh in the future and spammers are dying in graphic ways, seemingly dreamed up in 4chan. Liz Kavanaugh is a police detective whose career is in the shitter, trolling the internet for memes that could become dangerous, and she gets pulled into the investigation.
The book is told in second person for the most part, putting the reader into a lot of different characters’ places including a non-neurotypical mobster with something terrifying in his suitcase. And seriously, though nothing is described with slasher-movie levels of glee at depravity, this is the sort of book that could probably use trigger warnings.
One of the big ideas in this book (that I don’t remember from Halting State, but could very well have been there too) is that Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Rebus and whatever are a load of bollocks in terms of modern criminal investigation. In the future, good detectives are no longer the hyper-observant individual. That’s what computers are for. Good detectives in the future are good managers of people and IT to get all the cogs working together. There’s a lot of great ideas throughout the book, and not decades-old thoughts about how scary Artificial Intelligence would be.
If you don’t like second-person narration and thoughts on the future of criminality and stock manipulation this probably isn’t a great choice for you to read. But if that doesn’t turn you off and you like thinking about Makerbots and the seamy underbelly of future economies, it’s a must-read.
I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).
Cory Doctorow’s For The Win is about goldfarmers and unions and economics. It’s a good primer on all these issues, but as per usual, I feel like the novel was more of an excuse for Doctorow to write in-character mini-essays. Not to say they weren’t good essays, but yeah. The man definitely has opinions.
The idea is this: in-game economies are huge and underground and are worth more than a lot of countries. These economies are based on rare in-game items (magic gatling-swords) that you can only get by playing a long long time. When people have more money than time they can pay someone else for those benefits. This gives rise to ‘gold-farming’ which is where people play the game, grinding out tasks to collect items that can then be sold for real money. This is illegal but prevalent in game worlds. The Guardian recently did a story on how Chinese labour camps are making their prisoners gold-farm.
For The Win looks at this issue as a workers’ rights issue. These gold-farmers work for bosses, playing the games and generating revenue. The big question of the book is, since these economies are so huge what happens if the workers organize? Don’t the workers have power? There’s interaction between the organizing gamers and the “real-life” unions who don’t understand how that transnational kind of organization would work, and people dismissing it all as just a game anyway. There are a lot of cool ideas in the book.
The characters are a multinational bunch and generally likable. Doctorow’s good at giving you the “villain’s” perspective as well as your heroes’. There’s a lot in there that seems like it’s in there for no reason (WeiDong going to China in a customized shipping container thing is the main thing that bugged me in that regard). The explanations of interesting social experiments to do with money and economies and envy are interesting, but I feel like I’d like them to be integrated better into the story or separated out a bit (I think Neal Stephenson and Peter Watts both do a similar sorts of thing better, often by putting the essays into endnotes or appendices).
The other completely annoying thing was the advertisements for Cory’s favourite bookstores that ended every scene for the first half to two-thirds of the book. I don’t know if those are in the paper version or just the free-to-download .epub version I got from his website, but man oh man did I hate those interruptions. That’s something that would have been fine as footnotes, but bang right in the middle of the text, just angered me.
But yeah, it’s an interesting book for the economics of it all. If you’re an economist it might frustrate you with its explanations being too simplified or something but it was pretty good for interested layperson.
Charles Stross writes similar stuff about game economies and online crime with his books Halting State and its sequel which is out now (or very soon) Rule 34.
Charles Stross’ Halting State is about a bank robbery in a MMORPG (like World of Warcraft, but it’s the future so it’s some different game). I like most of Stross’ books (the Jennifer Morgue ones don’t do much for me). His characters are competent and witty and they get up to some interesting stuff. There are cool things happening with interesting ideas behind them. The thing I was a bit meh on in this one was the second-person narration. It became invisible quick enough but still.
These things are pretty light reading and the neatness of the ideas are clearly primary. I mean, the characters are easy to root for but in kind of an action movie kind of way. They’re just a vehicle for describing the interesting things that are happening. That’s not a crippling fault by any means, but this doesn’t have the same brain bendingness that something like Accelerando had.