Company Town is set in a city built on oil rigs and towers in Newfoundland, Canada. The Lynch company, owned and managed by the ancient patriarch Zachariah Lynch, runs the town. Hwa, a local young part-Korean woman works as a bodyguard for the union of sex workers, keeping the women safe and acting as their muscle and escort when they’re on the job. Hwa’s mother is a sex worker too, her only friends are in the business and Hwa is good at keeping them safe, though terrible at having any sort of healthy relationship with her mother. Hwa is entirely organic—she has no body enhancements or augmentations, unlike everyone else around her, but she’s a fighter; determined and unafraid.
It is these characteristics, and the fact that she can not be hacked, that bring her to the attention of the Lynch family, who hire her as the personal bodyguard for Joel, the fifteen year old genius heir to the Lynch assets, a boy who is always under the threat of kidnapping or worse. But when Hwa’s sex worker friends start to die mysteriously, she has to determine whether it’s not just Joel who is under imminent threat.
Though their initial interest was in oil, the Lynch empire is expanding, partly by building an ‘experimental thermonuclear reactor’ under the city (‘James Bond villain bullshit’, as Hwa calls it). Lynch Ltd has a finger in every pie, it seems, from biotech to creating new energy sources with self-assembling bots. “Humanity is coming to an end” says Zachariah to Hwa. “Some day people like you—people who remain fully organic—will be nothing more than specimens in a museum of humanity.” But Hwa is different, important in her extraordinary ordinariness. In a world full of ‘special’ people, her natural, entirely human body is what makes her stand out, albeit still in a way that others look down upon and pity. In addition to her unadulterated human biology, Hwa was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a congenital neurological disorder, which has left a ‘stain’ down one side of her face and body, and given her a tendency towards seizures. Her’s is a face that is often ‘edited out’ by others unwilling to notice her difference, or acknowledge it.
Of course, it’s not just how she looks and her body that is unexpected, uncontrolled and unmodified by society—Hwa isn’t one to abide by all rules, never even managing to compete professionally in Tae Kwon Do because of her frequent illegal moves, though she is an excellent fighter. “You’re a black swan,” she’s told by Daniel Siofra, the Lynch employee who is meant to watch over her, “A wild card. Something unpredictable.” And that’s what makes her such an arresting protagonist—she’s far from perfect, not easy to love, incredibly prickly, carrying tonnes of baggage and yet, is funny, warm and entirely empathetic. She is also what the Lynch family appear to need to keep Joel safe from what Zachariah believes is a more than human threat.
“You believe that?” Hwa asked. “You really, truly believe that some…” There was no proper hand gesture to communicate the enormity of what Lynch was suggesting. “Some…god-like AI is trying to warn you about your son’s death?”
“Yes. I believe that there is a conspiracy of sentient artificial super-intelligences to kill my son.”
“Like the Terminator.”
Lynch’s lip twitched. “No. That would be preposterous.”
There are plenty of genre references in Company Town, from the Terminator to Bond to teachers named Ballard, and even references to Enter the Dragon, but interestingly, Ashby has said that Korean TV drama serials were an influence on the novel. Even on a basic level, there is plenty of classic (almost but not quiet soapy) family drama indicated in Company Town: Zachariah is a megalomaniac patriarch who has very systematically ‘bred’ to create Joel, his last son and genius, perfect scion who will take over from him. Zachariah uses but dedicates the professional behaviour of his other children, who silently seethe with jealousy when forced to accept the old man’s ways in order to remain part of the family funds. That Joel himself is, essentially, a good, smart and just person is what makes his trajectory a little more emotional and even sweet—he really does want what is best for everyone, but will he ever have the chance to prove that?
Company Town also frequently features political jabs (‘I heard the CIA tried giving Putin cancer, why back when, with the early programmables’), comments on anti-vaccinators (Zachariah was born in an ‘anti science commune’ and he almost died of net-polio), on rape culture and sex work, on large scale family-run businesses being like cults (‘Is it not a novel organisation fanatically devoted to making possible the wishes and dreams of a single figure, based on his view of reality?’), and even observations on climate change, biotechnology and human body modifications, all the while moving tightly through an action packed plot. Company Town is a smart, very astute and oftentimes irreverent snappy, gritty noir cyber-thriller, as well as a compelling bildungsroman about a young woman coming to terms with herself.
It’s well paced and at times almost feels like Ashby employs jump cuts between scenes, accelerating the narrative in a way that may at first jar but then makes complete sense for a story about an accelerated future, where life is entirely tethered to technology and posthuman augmentation, implants and enhancements that make people stronger, smarter, faster, ‘better’ and intrinsically connected to the world around them. There is a massive avoidance of exposition throughout the novel, zero condescension towards the reader, and an assumption that the reader will be able to keep up with the large scale ideas of singularity, futurism and imperialism. And that in itself, makes this an incredibly refreshing read.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.