For her third novel, futurist Madeline Ashby has taken a break from her excellent Machine Dynasty series with the standalone novel Company Town. Set in the near future on New Arcadia, an oil-rig-turned-city somewhere off the coast of Atlantic Canada, it follows Go Jung-hwa, a young, cynical bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada, and one of New Arcadia’s few citizens who has not been subject to genetic engineering or received implants of any kind. When the family run-company Lynch Ltd. buys New Arcadia, she finds herself offered the job of protecting Joel Lynch, youngest member of the Lynch family and heir apparent, who has been receiving death threats. Not long after taking the job, someone starts murdering people from Hwa’s former life.
Company Town blends themes, genres, and concepts for some extremely successful world-building. Ashby gives us a frontier-town noir thriller that features social progress in attitudes about sex work, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other bio-technology, at least one flavour of municipal governance by corporation that could conceivably emerge from modern tech-firm campuses,1 and a brief, rather optimistic take on “smart city” urban planning.
The highlight of Company Town isn’t the world-building, however, it’s the three central characters, Hwa in particular. She suffers from an illness called Sturge-Weber Syndrome that causes, among other things, seizures and a port-wine stain on her face. In the world of Company Town there are implants and procedures that can cure her disease, but a combination of poverty and an ambitious, selfish mother means Hwa has gone untreated. It’s only one of many factors that leads to her feeling isolated, even from New Arcadia’s other outsiders.
Joel Lynch is about as likeable a kid as you can find in fiction, defying class stereotypes in that he seems to genuinely care for Hwa, and has both a wide-open mind and a deeply-ingrained sense of responsibility. It’s hard for the reader to not come to care for him in the same way that Hwa does, with a bit of wary reluctance. By the end he’s shown a depth that Asbhy allows no one but Hwa herself, and I found myself wishing we’d been able to follow his development a little more closely.
Daniel Síofra is a bit more of a problem. He’s essentially New Arcadia’s city planner, with more authority and control than any planner today could even imagine having, and is about as close to being perfectly benign as one could possibly imagine. He’s a bit creepy at first, and it’s easy to imagine that he has ulterior motives of some kind, but that creepiness stems from how out of context his character often feels. We don’t usally expect a grungy, near-future cyberpunk novel to have a character who is genuinely, and almost unrealistically, this good a person—although in fairness to Ashby, she’s messed him up pretty seriously in some other ways. By the end, however, his niceness becomes almost too much to handle, as the reader almost can’t rely on him to respond in ways that are truly human; we come to expect him to be concerned but never upset, never angry, never out of control or emotionally unavailable or less than honest. He might, at worst, be a little oblivious or distracted.
Then, of course, there is the supporting cast, the most significant of whom are the Lynch family, who fill certain roles at certain times but otherwise could just be background noise, and Hwa’s friends at the Union, who often seem to live and die largely to give Hwa a reason to move the plot forward. Ashby clearly wants us to see that Hwa cares for them, but the reader isn’t allowed to spend enough time with them, or with Hwa in that context, to feel the same way, and like with the various Lynches, I forgot their names almost immediately, as one tends to do with any characters who act as plot counters, pieces to be taken off the board after their moves have been made.
Company Town has a lot in common with Elizabeth Bear’s 2015 steampunk novel Karen Memory. Both novels feature sex workers trying to cope with the terror of a serial killer in their midst, and the authorities failing to stop them. The protagonists of both novels are tough women with notable regional accents and incomplete educations who are outsiders for one reason or another, and are doing their best to make a life for themselves with the opportunities they’ve had. And both novels have a problem with scale.
Bear, like Ashby, writes characters a reader can care about, even if we don’t necessarily identify with them or even like them. They are often people their society has dismissed as weak, damaged, or in some other way undesirable, and live their lives in ways and contexts that are more about getting by in the world than about shaping it. As a result, the situations that initially drive Ashby and Bear’s plots are very human in scale. They aren’t about the clash of armies, they’re about the real, daily fears of personal violence, often gendered. They aren’t about high-level political maneuvering that puts entire economies in jeopardy, they’re about front-line workers who might lose their jobs because of a minor mistake, or because someone else exercises their privilege. In both novels, however, there is a dramatic shift in the scale of the third act.
In the case of Karen Memory, we learn that the murders that have driven the plot to this point are secondary—in fact, incidental—to a larger scheme to destabilize the government. The book jumps from operating at a scale where the reader can see these normally marginalized characters as having real, intrinsic value and existing inside a story where the stakes are intimately and even viscerally relevant to their lives, to operating on one that tells the reader the last 200 pages or so they’ve spent with those characters were at best only a setup for what really matters: an international political conspiracy that will affect most of them only obliquely, and that they are involved in only by chance. Karen and her friends rise to the challenge and become heroes, of course, but the damage is done, and the resolution of the serial killing mystery, the engine that drove the plot for most of the novel, feels like an afterthought, or simply a box that needs to be checked so we can finally get to the bit with the airship.
Ashby handles the jump in Company Town better than Bear: the killings that have been important (though not as central as in Karen Memory) up until the third act turn out to be integral to the reveal of the larger-scale plot, but Ashby’s jump, though subtly foreshadowed early in the book, is a couple orders of magnitude bigger than it needs to be, and takes a lot of carefully carved-out agency away from her characters. They thought they were struggling with a stalker and (very) hostile corporate in-fighting, but they have actually been facing an adversary Hwa had only heard about from someone she rightly dismissed as a little crazy.2 Indeed, Hwa only ever engages with a manifestation of this adversary accidentally, when they’re backed into a corner, having already failed. Hwa, Joel, and Daniel emerge into their new status quo blind, having dealt with their localized problems effectively and with purpose, but absent any real idea what they did or didn’t do to bring about their larger victory—or even if it is a victory, in the long-term. It’s a bit of a mess, and I can’t help but think that Company Town is one of those rare books that would be better served by being a little longer. It’s hard to see what Ashby could have cut prior to that jump in scale, but it’s very easy to see where her ideas and characters need to be fleshed out in greater detail to keep the emotional core of the book intact and operating at the same level as her world building.
Science fiction, across all media, has a long history of bumping up the scale like this, and when it is appropriate and done well it can definitely ratchet up the audience’s investment in the outcome. However, as it increasingly becomes de rigueur rather than simply one structural option among many, it can just as often sever that audience’s investment in the characters and the story. Charlie Stross’ Accelerando deliberately takes this shift in scale to extremes, not even waiting for the third act, and the result is intellectually fascinating, but ultimately also an emotionally disconnected slog. Ashby stays on the right side of the line in Company Town, but only just.