Tuesday 8 August 2017

Company Town — The best 2016 SF novel not on the Hugo shortlist

The 2017 best novel shortlist was filled with worthwhile nominees representing diverse strains of
Our favourite SF novel
of 2016 did not get
a Hugo nomination.
(Image via Amazon.ca)
modern science fiction. From populist space adventures with hidden depths like A Closed And Common Orbit to ambitious and challenging far-future tales like Too Like The Lightning

It is interesting to note that the slate did not include much in the way of near-future works or grounded hard science fiction. And that’s a bit of a shame because 2016 saw the publication of one of the finest such works in recent memory. 

Madeline Ashby’s book Company Town may have escaped Hugo nomination because of its Canadian provenance, and primarily Canadian distribution. But it is a well-thought-out, nuanced thriller that should have appeal to a much wider audience. 

Set in a city built on a series of converted oil rigs off the coast of Newfoundland, Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa (AKA Hwa), a Korean-Canadian security worker and bodyguard who becomes caught up in a web of corporate intrigue when she is hired to protect the scion of a powerful business family. 

But that capsule plot summary does not do the author’s breadth of imagination justice. The city of New Arcadia is a character in and of itself, whose social strata, economy, citizens and culture are integral to the story. It has personality based on history and memory without leaning on nationalism or pride. 

This history of New Arcadia and the personal histories of its denizens never arrive in awkward infodumps, but are baked into the story in a natural and subtle ways. This is deft worldbuilding; enough detail to be relevant to the reader without distracting from the narrative or plot. 

As has been observed often, when the future arrives, it is unevenly distributed. In Company Town,
Given the size and growth of offshore oil rigs, its not
inconceivable that one day, they will be the size of cities.
(Image via The Motley Fool.com) 
Ashby introduces us to a world in which low-level genetic and technological augmentation has become normalized — but is class-based. We learn that some implants are cheaper and flawed, that others can be hacked.

For reasons of class and income, Hwa remains one of the few baseline humans around, having not even been cured of a serious neurological condition she was born with. 

As the book begins, Hwa is employed by the (completely legal) United Sex Workers of Canada, providing protective services to the union members. Although she quits that job fairly early in the story, her relationship to the union, and to the union members she protected provide both an anchor for her character, and a view into life in New Arcadia. This was written with evident knowledge of organized labour. 

After New Arcadia is bought out by a major corporation, Hwa goes to work for the CEO’s family. The various class strata that Hwa interacts with, and the characters that inhabit this world are well thought out, and believable. This is a book where we cared about what happened to just about everyone, and wondered what the future held for their city. 

Although this is not a cyberpunk work, Company Town is clearly part of the same intellectual tradition as Neuromancer and Snow Crash. The focus on inequality, the street-level perspectives, the body augments, and the class struggles all point to the earlier works’ influences. This is post-cyberpunk at its finest. 

No book is without its flaws, and in the case of Company Town those flaws are most evident in the conclusion. In the last 70 pages, there is an odd tonal shift and an unnecessary romantic subplot. The book seems to get less grounded and more fantastical. But even these issues are overshadowed by strong writing, engaging characters and inspired conceptual work.

If Company Town had been nominated for the Hugo Award, it would have been at the top of most of our ballots. As Canadians, we are left wondering why this book didn’t have stronger uptake. Although it failed to secure a nomination, this is a book that we suspect will have enduring value, and will be remembered as an exemplar of Canadian science fiction.

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