From The Record, April 28th
“I didn’t like this book.” These were among the first words spoken by my friend and fellow “Canada Reads, and so does Lennoxville!” panelist Anne Ross back in March, in reference to Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, the book she was defending. Well, there’s a challenge, I said to myself. Clearly, some people really liked this book, or it would not have been in the competition. So, at the end of the library event, Anne and I exchanged the autographed copies of “our” books. I’d given a glowing review of my book, Nostalgia, and knew she’d like it; Anne was pretty dubious about my enjoying Company Town. (By the way, neither book won either the Lennoxville or Canada-wide competition, although Company Town came second in the Canadian event.)
The first thing I noticed was that I did, in fact, like the jacket art, crafted by Erik Mohr. But, as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, so I cracked it open and began reading.
Company Town, set on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in the near-ish future, qualifies in several genres: futurist, science-fiction and noir mystery. The rig is no longer used to find and pump oil, but is now a full-fledged town, New Arcadia, owned by the monstrous—and monstrously wealthy— Zachariah Lynch. Denizens of New Arcadia range from the obscenely poor (trolls) to the equally obscenely well-to-do, such as members of the largely dysfunctional Lynch family. Many, including those who work in the sex trade (now a legalized profession) are “enhanced” with high-tech organs and various changes that qualify as improvements, well beyond the plastic surgery techniques of today. The protagonist, Hwa, is a young woman of Korean descent who works as a bodyguard for many of the prostitutes, who have become her friends and de facto family. She is one of the few people in town who is completely unenhanced, and defiantly so. In fact, she has spent her whole life as an outcast, at least in part due to a disfiguring dark stain on her skin that runs from her eye downward, and an epileptic condition which causes occasional seizures and other symptoms. To compensate, she has become a martial arts expert, and confidante of the sex workers. As a result of special ocular filters, most people cannot actually see her disfigurement, and certainly do not want to.
Although she doesn’t have a particularly wonderful life, Hwa gets by on her strength, smarts, and martial arts skills. Early in the novel, she is approached by a representative of the Lynch family to work for them full time as a trainer/bodyguard for the youngest Lynch, Joel, a pleasant teenager destined to take over the family dynasty. The pay, naturally, is better than she has been earning, but it is still a difficult decision to change jobs due to the close relations she has developed with the sex workers she protects. The Lynches prevail, however, and she begins her new job, to the dismay and disgust of her friends, and under the very watchful eye of Daniel Siofra, a Lynch protégé. Much like in other futuristic novels, the surveillance techniques in New Arcadia are drawn directly from those utilized by George Orwell’s Big Brother: those in control are all-seeing, all-hearing and all-knowing. Siofra is, virtually, inside Hwa’s head.
When mysterious murders start occurring in Hwa’s vicinity, the natural assumption is that Joel is the target. Most of those killed are among Hwa’s sex worker friends, who are now essentially unprotected since Hwa’s defection to the Lynch conglomerate. When she herself is seriously wounded in the course of one of the murders, she decides to quit and return to her previous employment, if they’ll have her. Ultimately, though, she elects to stay on as Joel’s protector, a result of the close bond they have developed, and her increasing affection for—but mistrust of—her boss, Daniel Siofra. She has also come to believe that the Lynch technology she is now privy to will help her find the killer. I won’t share too much of the uncovering of the mysterious killer, except to say that [spoiler alert!]an ultra-high-tech invisibility suit plays a large part….
One of the disconcerting features of the book is how the reader is plunged directly into its high tech world, with all its attendant, obscure vocabulary, but with no real background offered to ease the transition, so going back and re-reading those sections is the only way to fathom some of the dialogue and actions.
I think that Ms. Ashby’s sizeable fan base would love this book, and mystery aficionados might appreciate the detective aspects of the story. But, in the final analysis, I agreed with my friend Anne: I did not like this book, and I certainly would have had difficulty defending it as “the one book that Canadians need now”.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. Her series of books about killer robots, The Machine Dynasty, has been very successful. She has a background in developing science fiction prototypes for organizations such as Intel Labs, among others. She is also a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.