Naomi Kritzer's "Catfishing on the CatNet": an AI caper about the true nature of online friendship

Back in 2016, Naomi Kritzer won the Hugo award for her brilliant, endearing story Cat Pictures Please, in which an AI with an insatiable craving for cat pictures explains its view on the world and the way that it makes humans' lives better; now Kritzer has adapted the story into her new novel, the equally brilliant, superbly plotted YA thriller Catfishing on CatNet.

Steph doesn't know much about her dad: only that he tried to murder their family by burning the house down when she was little, and that she and her mother — a gifted infosec freelancer who can earn a living writing cryptographic tools from anywhere — have been on the run from him ever since.

Every few months, her mother discovers — through some unknown means — that Steph's dad is catching up with them and then they get into the van in the middle of the night and drive a minimum of 250 miles, then turn off the highway and drive another 25 miles, then settle in whatever town they've found themselves in. It's a lonely and chaotic life, with few friends and little stability, and the fact that Steph can get out of a particularly terrible new town by misbehaving at school in a way that triggers police interest (and thus another middle-of-the-night move) isn't much comfort.

Steph has one source of stability: CatNet. Her mom will let her use her laptop (through an anonymizing VPN) to login to the social networking service, where the currency is cute pictures of cats (or other animals: Steph's fond of bats). CatNet is that rarest of gems: a social network with no trolling or spam, moderated by tireless volunteers whose sensitivity and skill ensures that every participating is perfectly sorted into a "clowder" — a private affinity group — with just the right mix of people to form strong, comforting, meaningful friendships.

What Steph doesn't know (but which we learn right away) is that CatNet is the product of a rogue AI, one committed to improving the lives of humans, only ever asking for cute animal pics in return. The AI — present in Steph's clowder as "CheshireCat" — is all of the moderators and several of the participants, and is a kind of loving, near-omniscient guardian angel for CatNet and all who sail in her.

But Steph's needs are more than your typical CatNetter. Once she lands in a tiny, conservative town in Wisconsin where the sex-ed class is taught by a robot that has been reprogrammed by the local conservative school board to answer every sensitive question with "I don't know, you should ask your parents about that," Steph and CheshireCat and her clowdermates cook up a plot to hack the robot and let CheshireCat remote-control it and answer students' sex questions in a full and frank matter.

This seemingly harmless prank goes viral, and puts Steph and her mother in danger of being outed. Normally they'd leave town (and leave behind the first real friends Steph has made since she was eight), but her mom's health takes a turn for the scary, landing her in the ER.

What follows is an absolutely charming and incredibly gripping, superbly plotted YA thriller that I literally read in one sitting, staying up two hours past my bedtime and moving to the sofa when my wife yelled at me to turn off the light.

Kritzer's ability to portray the warm comfort of online friendships, the sense of belonging and safety that comes from having a community that has your back is the perfect complement for her ability to spin a story that's both technologically plausible and full of delightful and unpredictable twists and turns. The story ends with a cliffhanger, too — so I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Catfishing on CatNet [Naomi Kritzer/Tor Teen]