In Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, almost the entire story takes place on a self-contained oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. The novel mixes science fiction with mystery as a killer is on the loose in this depressing future. I kept asking myself, is this a dystopia? I’m not sure it is. Perhaps, the perspective is grounded in characters who do not have many good options in life. If a novel were set today in Aleppo, Syria might it not be seen as dystopian from the perspective of those in that time? The same could be said for fiction in our current time took place in a sweatshop. For the most part, if one resides in North America there are privileges that keep one shielded from the realities our fellow human beings experience on this world.
In Company Town, technology is better, faster and cheaper; but, there is an ever-widening gap between the top percent of the population and everyone else. Middle-class seems more like working-poor; but again, all we see of Ashby’s world is what is contained on the oil rig. As I wrote earlier, I like the idea of a company town set in the future. The corporation is all-powerful and controls all aspects of the town from what’s for sale, what’s allowed, even to the mood of the residents.
The main character of Company Town is a young woman named Hwa. In a time when everyone has genetic or technological augments, Hwa stands out for being entirely organic. She also has a neurological disease, which as a side-effect, stained one side of her body. She sees herself as ugly and doesn’t register on people’s augmented vision. Sometimes, she is automatically “edited” out. Her role is that of a body guard, first for prostitutes and then for the heir of the Lynch’s, the family / corporation which recently purchased the oil rig.
Themes that come into play are seeing versus not seeing, rejuvenation and reincarnation, as well as the many worlds theory. The plot hinges around threats made to Joel, the heir of the Lynch family. The patriarch of the family, Zachariah Lynch, doesn’t know who sends them, but they arrive once a year threatening to kill Joel. A believer in the Singularity, Zachariah Lynch, believes “there is a conspiracy of sentient artificial super-intelligences to kill my son.”
Well, shit. And, this is my last day until retirement, Riggs.
The writing is fast-paced and Hwa is an interesting character, though focusing on her being the daughter of a whore and the most pure person on the rig has a cliché aspect. My problem with the novel took place at the end, starting around page 230.
First off, how do you deal with something happening that you are pretty sure is going to happen? In Company Town, I’m referring to the character Daniel Síofra. He is Hwa’s liaison with the company and they have a love affair. I wasn’t surprised by what happened (I’m trying not to spoil things), but it left me with a meh feeling. Like, okay, yeah that happened just like I thought it would. On a side note, whether intentional or not, the character of Daniel reminded me or R. Daneel Olivaw from Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series. They both have a sense of purpose, strive to serve, and are other in a way that makes them relatable to one another.
The second problem was much larger as it was the ending of the novel. I’ve protected you thus far from spoilers, so stop reading now if you don’t want the book ruined for you. The killer is revealed and it’s not who you’d expect. That at least is fine. Beware of the minor character with seemingly no stake in the plot. The killer is from the future. Versions of him have wiped out Hwa’s from multiple worlds in order to control Joel, the heir.
“Time is a panopticon, to me and my brothers. Like this tower. We stand in the centre, and we open the doors we need. But this door, the door to New Arcadia, is the most important one.” Great quote, but no explanation. Reeks of Diabolus ex Machina. Is this time or world more important than others where Hwa has been killed off?Is the name Branch too cute for a many-worlds terror? Perhaps, I don’t get the many worlds theory and fail to see the importance of this world’s Hwa. Maybe it’s just that in this one world everything works out and the reader needs to be content with that. The magical non-explanation explanation is terrible. The writing isn’t clear. Then, the final two events become even more fated. Of course, there is a way just for Hwa to destroy this creature. But, we learn that the killer is not responsible for sending the threats. So who is?
We never find out. My thought is that it was someone from the future working against Branch a.k.a. the Killer. The threats are what involves Hwa in Joel’s life. Perhaps, a future Joel sent them back. Finally, Hwa is reborn. The biological nano-bots, which make Daniel Síofra a “changeling” have been sexually transmitted to Hwa and she’s alive, rebuilt after the fusion overload, which I thought was going to kill everyone, not just her and Branch. Hwa sacrificed herself and was rewarded. The holes in her memory and experience are also holes for the reader.
Overall, I enjoyed Company Town, but for me the ending fell apart. With the quick pace of the novel it started to feel like the Coyote from Warner Bros. ran out over the cliff and was still sticking pieces of wood under his feet and making headway. Everything progresses until the Coyote looks down and falls. Company Town gets ahead of itself and plummets into the ravine. Still, it’s enjoyable until the crash.