Company Town, while a book I definitely wanted to read, is not a book I had intended to read right now. This is how it came to me:
Me: spots book on living room table, evidently purchased by Dad You read this yet? Dad: No. Me: takes book Let me know when you want it back. drops smoke screen
100% accurate retelling.
I’m quite surprised this is a selection for Canada Reads. It’s very science fiction, and not literary-acceptable science fiction by a juggernaut like Margaret Atwood. Madeline Ashby name-checks concepts like the Singularity and, without going too far towards spoiler territory, includes some temporally-challenging timeline/artificial intelligence/nanomachine stuff in this book.
Trigger warning in the book for violence against women and, specifically, sex workers, and rape threats. There is a serial killer at work and some of the scenes get gruesome. I’m not going into details in this review, though.
Company Town is about twenty-two-year-old Go Jung-hwa. A high school drop-out, Hwa makes a living as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada union members on the New Arcadia oil rig. She stands out because she is completely unaugmented in a genetic and cybernetic sense. She makes up for this with tenacity and rigorous training, tenets she intends to pass on to her charge, the fifteen-year-old son and heir apparent of the company that buys New Arcadia.
Make no mistake: though this book is set in the near future and filled with technology only now in its infancy, Company Town is about the present day in the best sense of science fiction. Ashby’s portrayal of Hwa, the sex workers she protects, and the corporate machinations that threaten the existence and stability of New Arcadia are all very real and pressing people and issues in the present day. By removing them into a hypothetical future with robots and virtual reality Ashby just has a few more degrees of freedom to explore where we might be heading as a society—and I say “we”, since this book is actually set in Canada!
One of those degrees of freedom is in Ashby’s depiction of unionized sex work. This is a hot topic right now, with several high-profile court cases happening recently in Canada. It isn’t clear specifically if sex work is legalized or decriminalized in this future (the difference is an important one to sex workers), but the point is that it’s not underground any more. That doesn’t eliminate the need for protection, as Hwa’s job at the start of the novel demonstrates—but even the positing of a future with unionized sex work is in some ways a positive move towards social justice. For all the economic oppression and violence that happens in this book, there is at least this hopeful dimension to this future.
Still, much of Hwa’s experience will seem familiar to contemporary readers. Her world still searches for clean energy solutions, and the vice of fossil fuels has continued to squeeze corporations into constructing bigger, more dangerous oil rigs that are essentially cities. These environments have their own laws, and with a new owner, new rules come into play. It’s notable that Hwa does not call the police when her former colleagues start dying: she investigates on her own, using the resources available in her new position, because she does not trust the police to protect women. And Ashby does an excellent job explaining, in a visceral way, so that male readers in particular might get an inkling of why that’s the case. In addition to the more graphic scenes, there’s a disgusting chat conversation Hwa eavesdrops on halfway through the book. While reading it, all I can think is, “this is how a lot of men talk today”. It’s how the President of the United States has talked, on record, about treating women. Company Town is set in the future, but nothing about its treatment of women is science fictional.
I love how Ashby shows Hwa’s colleagues pushing her away after she leaves the United Sex Workers to go work for Lynch, Ltd. It’s not very subtly done, but that makes it all the more potent: they see her as a traitor, a sell-out. Worse, they don’t trust her anymore, making it all the more difficult for her to help them—which is the main reason she stays with Lynch even after the job goes sideways, fast. But you really quickly understand that, in a world where everyone else is against them, trying to get something from them or possibly planning violence against them, they have to stick together. And they interpret Hwa’s action as abandonment, even if it is potentially a good decision for her on a personal level.
I also appreciate the relationship between Hwa and her charge, young Joel. Although he’s a self-described genius, he’s not annoying. He is fifteen, and it shows, both the quirky confidence fifteen-year-old boys have and the moments of excruciating self-doubt. This is amplified, of course, by his obvious responsibilities as heir to the privately-held Lynch company. But I love how he goes to bat for Hwa, how he comes to trust her and help her, and how he starts to question certain aspects of his father’s business. Their relationship feels the most real and reaffirming of all the ones in this book, in contrast to, say, Hwa’s relationship with Daniel, which I could never really place in terms of whether it was supposed to be messy romantic tension or just programmed corporate espionage.
(I also headcanon Joel as asexual. He reassures Hwa he has no desire to have sex with her. It’s true, of course, that part of Hwa’s characterization is physical disfigurement that renders her conventionally unattractive. Still, a couple of times he mentions how he finds the whole prospect of sex unpalatable, gross, perhaps “even painful.” And I’m like, “Dude, fifteen-year-old me totally gets where you’re coming from here. Stick with your generation ship designs and your VR books and science club.” So there’s that.)
If the first half of this book is our introduction to Hwa and her world, then the second half is an intense thriller and mystery. As Hwa’s involvement in the Lynch corporation’s plans for New Arcadia gets deeper and deeper, she has to question her identity and her allegiances and even her ideology about what the future should hold. It’s philosophically complex but also intense because of the physical action sequences, the detective legwork and chase scenes that Hwa participates in. For the majority of the time, I was enjoying this book at about the same level that I did vN or iD: hey, this is a cool science-fiction novel. Then a switch flipped, and I can’t quite remember where, and I realized that this book is a big deal. Like, I get now why it was chosen for Canada Reads.