Genetic engineering, augmented reality, and the extractive economy: starting off _Company Town_

Last week a bunch of you decided to read Company Town in our near-future science fiction online book club.  Here’s a post for talking about the novel’s first third.

Ashby Company TownFirst I’ll offer a quick summary of the plot so far. Next I’ll add observations about Ashby’s world. Last will come miscellaneous literacy critical notes.

I: The story so far

Holding back on spoilers: Go Jung-Hwa is a bodyguard working in a community built on top of an old oil extraction platform ironically named New Arcadia.  She begins as muscle to protect prostitutes, then is hired to protect a very wealthy man’s favorite son, Joel.

Hwa is marked internally and externally by Sturge-Weber Syndrome , which renders her resentful and conventionally unattractive.  She is also unusual in not carrying technological implants, unlike most other people

Daniel Siofra is Hwa’s minder, a corporate functionary and the result of biologically engineering.

II: The world of Company Town

New Arcadia is the titular company town, a community dominated by one major employer and legally part of eastern Canada.  There’s at least some active democracy, if not Infomocracy level, as Ashby tells us that the population once voted on the major decision to build a new platform (160).  Yet the Lynch corporation, which just bought the place, employs Daniel in an “Urban Tactics Department”, where he undemocratically “change[s] the moods of cities” (295).  Lynch may also already own the currency (756): a company town indeed.

It’s a grungy and grim world.  Many characters are poor and unhappy, working by selling their bodies.  There’s a sense of possibilities squandered.  Hwa describes one attractive bit of technology is if “[i]t… came from someone else’s future” (106), because the future they actually live in is sad.  There is some form of social safety net, at least in name, as people have Social Insurance Numbers (673).  Class divides block some people from winning genetic advantages for their children and themselves (1018).

This near-future world offers digital technologies we’ve come to expect from recent science fiction.  People have mobile devices (watches, 31) which they use for photographs, messages, and video, plus being advertised at by canny AIs, Minority Report-style (739).  They see each other through filters which add and subtract content, like a Mind Your Manners layer (112).  Lynch runs a city-wide management software platform, Prefect, which some users can access (814). Haptics are in play (87).  Each person has a “halo” of medical (and maybe other) information (735).

Buildings can be made with “biocrete and healing polymers” (171) or programmable matter (234) and “designed by algorithm” (177).  People can use “nano-mist” to some unclear effect (188).  Botflies has observe people and objects (727).  Self-driving cars are the norm (837, 901).  Fusion power might (still) be just around the corner (1071).

Biological technologies are very powerful.  Engineering children is widespread:

They had the uniform builds of state-sponsored genetic tailoring… (95)

Hwa stared at the uniform perfection of her fellow students.  They were all mainstream: mainstream height, mainstream weight, mainstream ability, mainstream health.  Techically editing skin color or hair texture qualified as a kind of hate crime… (1013)

Most people have implants, called “stimplants” (249). Daniel has “programmable tissues” (262).  Joel has “an antianxiety implant” (1202).

Education seems decent at primary and secondary levels, but college is inaccessible .

“I want to go to university.”

Hwa winced.  “Sounds expensive.” (358)

Zachariah Lynch, Joel’s father and corporate leaders, has a vision of a post-Singularity future attempting to assassinate his son. It’s not clear at this point if he’s delusional or correct, but his explanation of how best to do time travel into the past is interesting (599-635).  Lynch sees the human race as “coming to an end”, mostly due to advances in biological technologies (635); is this apocalyptic fear going to ultimately structure the novel?  Note the reference to Roko’s Basilisk.

III: Lit crit notes

I like how Ashby foregrounds a pugilistic, fierce attitude.  We get that in chapters headers, each of which lists an injury or illness.  And the first sentence sets the bone stage nicely: “Hwa wondered if today was the day she would finally get to finish that sorry son of a bitch once and for all.”  The opening paragraph ends on a snarling threat: “They simply didn’t see her coming until it was too late.”

There are some nice turns of phrase.  A building’s “louvres shifted constantly, like a bird fluffing its feathers up against the cold.” (177)  Creepy Lynch describes having sex in these creepy terms: “I’ve never bred with a finer woman” (641).  Race and tech: “The whole bioluminscent inkjob trend really didn’t work for white people” (100). Obsolescence in daily life:

[Prefect] was a shiny interface that followed Hwa wherever she went.  Or rather, wherever she let it.  Her refrigerator and her washroom mirror were both too old for it.  So it lived in her specs. (820)

People have Social Insurance Numbers (673) (I think the same acronym joke appears in Gibson’s Neuromancer).

Company Town also has a good sense of humor, with a city teacher named Ballard (presumably after the writer J.G. Ballard; 177) and a sadistic thug named Angel (408).  A bridge over seas is called the Fitzgerald Causeway; is that a dark reference to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (cue music)?  A building tower named Viridian (177) has got to be a nod to Bruce Sterling’s 1990s-era Viridian movement.  Daniel Siofra gives Hwa a Prisoner-style “be seeing you” sendoff (998)

The book seems to blend genres so far.  We have near-future science fiction, plus a crime story, with a classic detective story setup (wealthy and disturbing client hires hero for dodgy job).  Definitely some strong echoes of cyberpunk.

Themes: the book is very concerned with seeing and not seeing.  Hwa’s true nature is hidden under her disease: “For some reason your face doesn’t show up on the camera.” (268)  People surveil each other frequently.

Early on we’re introduced to a little world that feels cyberpunk-y or Batman-y.  This is the bit with Mistress Severine, who has flunkies charmingly named Rusty and Nail, and who we first see reminding a man of what it means to feel fear (142, 148).  I hope to see more of them.

Is there a hint of Gothic horror in Lynch’s decision to locate an experimental fusion reactor in Arcadia’s symbolic basement?

IV: Over to you

What do you make of Company Town so far?  Tim Lepzyk has already posted comments about his reading, halfway through the novel.

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