/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Sat, May 28 2016
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  • Company Town: Madeline Ashby's tale of sex and Singularity cults is a locked-door mystery at sea

    Company Town: Madeline Ashby's tale of sex and Singularity cults is a locked-door mystery at sea

    A decade ago, I published the first Madeline Ashby story to see print, "In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock n' Roll," in Tesseracts 11; four years ago, I reviewed her outstanding debut novel, vN, and then revelled in its sequel a year later: but now, a decade later, Ashby is an overnight success, with a breakout novel about love, labor, shame, sex and Singularity cultists: Company Town.

    Hwa is one of the few unenhanced people on New Arcadia, a township made of oil platforms off the Newfoundland coast, but don't let that fool you: she's still one of the deadliest fighters on the rig, and that's why she works so steadily as private security for the licensed, unionized prostitutes of New Arcadia.

    Even if she hadn't been a fighter, Hwa would never have been a prostitute: the disfiguring stain that starts on her face and runs all the way down her side precludes that kind of work. Also, having grown up in the shadow of her hateful, surgically refined mother -- a minor K-pop star turned successful hooker -- she's got no interest in the trade.

    Which is probably a good thing, because the super-rich Lynch family -- whose patriarch barely survived his boyhood in a Luddite commune that was wiped out by diseases for which the members refused vaccinations -- just bought New Arcadia, and got it cheap, thanks to the fire that destroyed one of the platforms and killed Hwa's brother (who was also her best friend).

    Most people on the towers never see Hwa; their filters use machine learning to blur out any offensive sights, like her facial disfigurement; she's just a presence beside the sparkling women she defends.

    But everyone's on edge about the Lynches. Why are they here? What will they do? Will they shut down legal prostitution and send it underground? Will the rigs keep running? In a company town like New Arcadia, anything is possible.

    Then the Lynches come for Hwa, and make her an offer: serve as bodyguard for their son and heir apparent, Joel, and she will earn and be protected, and help the Lynches to gently and wisely rule New Arcadia. How could she refuse?

    It's probably not her fault that someone starts killing sex workers as soon as she takes the job.

    Company Town is a locked-room murder mystery at sea, in a setting that's got trenchant things to say about class and gender, and about the way that our technological ambitions reflect both of them. Hwa ranks with science fiction's great badasses, and as a technological refusenik, she's the perfect protagonist for this story about the way that money, power and technology all dream together.

    Take Ashby's pyrotechnical prose, her talent for writing mean and true things about sex, and combine them with a futuristic, gritty setting, and you get Company Town: a nice place to visit, but you definitely don't want to live there.

    Company Town [Madeline Ashby/Tor Books]

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