Company Town is set in the future on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland which makes the rig itself a company town. It feels very much like a novel of the gold rush days but with futuristic ability to augment and modify the human body. It is owned by the powerful Lynch family who purchased it after a disastrous fire that took the lives of a third of the town. It is a working man’s platform and, so, there is a cadre of sex workers (unionized, of course) who live there and have a number of protectors including our hero, Hwa. In the midst of her duties, she is pulled into a series of murders of her sex worker friends, the Lynch family and man’s constant desire for eternal life.
While the premise, as I’ve laid it out, seems “normal” and prosaic, Ms. Ashby makes it anything but. Hwa is a phenomenon in herself. While most of her upbringing has done its utmost to teach her not to value herself, she has pushed back and will suffer no fools. While she doesn’t see her own value as she might, she is no doormat. Yes, as part of her job, she kicks butt and asks questions later, but it is her ability to put the puzzle together, to think through the challenges put before her that set her apart. Her relationships between her family (in the form of a prostitute mother and a dead brother), her employers (both the sex union and the Lynches) and her “under-world friends” are rich, varied and multi-dimensional. The augmented bodies around her make for a difficult world to navigate as one who still has pure and natural biology.
One of the processes that fascinates me is to see an already really good writer become an even better writer. I believe that’s happened here with Ms. Ashby’s writing. So what makes it better? It’s more accessible and draws us into caring more about the characters and relationships while remaining edgy and holding no punches. How is this magic achieved? At least for me, I found myself more able to empathize with Hwa than I ever did with Amy, Charlotte or even Javier in her previous Machine Dynasty duology (vN and iD). While her characters there were rich and fascinating, they were different enough, both in capabilities and outlook, that I couldn’t empathize with them.
My life has been considerably different than Hwa’s. First, I had parents who in many different ways and forms made it quite clear to me that I was unconditionally loved. There are a few more freeing gifts than this. Second, I had a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Yet we all feel those moments of exclusion, where we feel substantially different from and, somehow, less than those around us. All, while not to her same degree, have suffered loss. Merely because she bears the stares with an insouciant shrug makes them no less painful. We take heart in seeing her network of friends. We sense the steel in our own spine stiffen when she makes clear that she suffers no fools. So while there are many differences, including physical and intellectual talents, well beyond our own among them, Hwa is someone with whom we may empathize.
Another mark of Company Town is that a mutually caring relationship takes center stage. The relationships were at best awkward, sometimes antagonistic while always complex in the Machine Dynasty duology; while the relationships between Daniel Siofra and Go Jung-hwa or Hwa and Joel are different types, they are both mutual caring relationships while remaining complex. Javier relationships with Charlotte and Amy were all too strange. While that strangeness added to the novels but distanced us from the charachters, here, we more naturally care even in the midst of the strangeness
Our vision of the world is all too often upended in both good and difficult ways. So too in the Lynches’ New Arcardia.. The “white knight” proves to be the one in need (bought that t-shirt). The broken one proves to heal many and the man in control finds his reign illusory. It’s a masterful bit of writing that pulls that off without feeling artificial and manipulative. While I know some may disagree, I love the ending; it brings things together in a beautiful but possible way without ignoring the realties that we never have a perfect world when we’re done. So is justice fully achieved? No. While we may long for “… justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24 ESV), it will not, on this side of the grave; Company Town reflects that fallen state oh so accurately.
So, what do I love about Company Town?
- Hwa – her tenacious character who cannot fail to help others
- This world of augmentation and biological adoptions and their social implications
- The complex, multi-dimensional relationships and interactions.
- The riveting, quick-paced yet thoughtful narrative
I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about the book; even the depiction of the seedier side of New Arcadia was intriguing.
I highly commend Company Town to your reading pleasure.
World Building: 4.5/5