Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot: May 17, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Free From Publisher
Company Town is a science fiction novel that checks all my boxes: great characters, a compelling plot, and complex ideas that aren’t bogged down by didacticism and explanations.
Hwa is a young woman living on an oil rig. On this self-contained ecosystem Hwa stands out. Hwa is one of the very few who does not have any augmentations that enhance her humanity. Hwa can’t fix herself with tech. As a result, Hwa constantly strives to be work harder than anyone else, a skill that lends itself well to her job: bodyguard to the prostitutes that work the rig. Hwa is dedicated to her job; however, when the Lynch corporation takes over the rig, the man in charge offers Hwa a new job as the bodyguard to Joel, the son and heir to the head of the Lynch empire. Why would a seemingly all-powerful corporate bigwig want Hwa, who cannot afford the most basic of upgrades, as bodyguard to his son? What does Hwa have that other bodyguards do not? Well, with technology comes certain vulnerabilities:
“She can’t be hacked.” Siofra said the words a little too loudly. He stared at the elder Lunch as he spoke. “She has no augments. So there’s no recognition algorithm in her eyes that can be rewritten. There’s nothing in her pancreas that can foul up and send her into diabetic shock. She has no neural implants. She can’t hear voices or see visions or be made into someone’s puppet. She doesn’t have legacy code floating around under her skin, waiting to be exploited. She’s…” He trailed off. “Pure” (p. 33).
In a world where everyone can be hacked, Hwa is special because she is invulnerable to external manipulations that come with being augmented. While one might want to be upgraded, those upgrades come with a steep price if someone decides that they want to take advantage of you. So, the fact that Hwa is free of augmentations positions her as a near perfect bodyguard; no one can highjack her body and force her to take out the very person that she’s protecting.
Despite many misgivings about this new bodyguard gig, Hwa decides to accept the offer from the Lynch family. Hwa is dedicated to protecting Joel and even becomes a friend of sorts to the young man. Another perk of the job is the access to information and technology that Hwa has, courtesy of the Lynch family of course. These benefits come in handy when Hwa’s former clients start turning up dead. Determined to discover who is killing her friends, Hwa embarks on her own investigation into who is targeting vulnerable woman, only to discover that the murders are unexpectedly connected to the Lynch family.
Company Town is a book that worked for me on so many levels and it basically typifies exactly the kind of science fiction that I want to read. There are thought provoking things happening in Company Town such as the idea of augmenting one’s person, which in turn, forces readers to question what it is to be human. Are you less human after you let machines into your body? How does this symbiotic relationship between humans and technology change what it means to be human? These questions are explored throughout Company Town with Hwa and those that she interacts with.
While I certainly appreciate the ideas that the author forces readers to consider, what I think makes Company Town extra special is the fact that these ideas are grounded in an entertaining story. Company Town is fast-paced and exciting, featuring a murder mystery plot and multiple attempted assassinations. If action-adventure isn’t your thing, the character of Hwa as well as the secondary characters of Siofra and Joel also brings a human element to the plot. Hwa is strong woman; she’s not without her vulnerabilities, self-consciousness about her appearance being one of them, but she is well-developed and interesting main character. For me, Company Town is one of those rare books that will translate to a diverse audience depending on what appeals to them. There’s something for the sci-fi fans, something for those that have a fondness for mysteries, and something for those that need character drama. The strength of Company Town lies in its diverse appeal. I know I will be recommending it to as many readers as I can.
Company Town is an engrossing and thought-provoking read. I was hooked by the Canadian connection in the setting and description of the future, but I loved it for the engaging and endearing character of Hwa. I want more from this author ASAP. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans that enjoy stories that explore the future of humanity and it’s relationship with technology.
The determined character of Hwa immediately put me in mind of another stubborn young heroine: Kayla Reinumon of The Empress Game. Like Ashyby’s novel, Empress Game creates a complex world that doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Empress Game is the start of a trilogy and I think it’s a very strong start.
If you liked the exploration of the question of what it means to be human in Company Town, you wont want to miss out on Ancillary Justice. While Company Town has a somewhat more negative bent on the future of the relationship between humans and technology, Ancillary Justice offers a more positive picture. I love each and every book of Leckie’s trilogy.
Lastly, for fans of Hwa’s kick-butt attitude, another sci-fi heroine that is likely to appeal is Devi Morris of Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy. This is another excellent character-driven novel and will also appeal to fans who enjoyed the fast-paced nature of Ashby’s Company Town. Start with book one, Fortune’s Pawn.