Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer and Stray Bats by Margo Lanagan

Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (TorTeen 978-1-25016-508-4, $17.99, 304pp, hc) Novem­ber 2019.

Naomi Kritzer’s 2015 Hugo Award-winning story “Cat Pictures Please” may have been a bit thin on plot, but the appealing, ingenuous voice of its AI narrator left many readers hoping to hear more, while the very idea of a helpful, well-meaning AI (an idea which Kritzer credited to Bruce Sterling’s “Maneki Neko”) seemed like a welcome antidote to the beaten-to-pulp cliché of human-hating digital Frankensteins. Now Kritzer has resurrected that voice (or one very much like it) in her YA novel Catfishing on CatNet, which not only is just as ingratiating as the story, but is far more ingenious in terms of plot and point of view. In addition to the AI, the principal narrator is 16-year-old high school student Stephanie, who has difficulty forming friendships because her mother moves her from town to town at almost random intervals to evade Stephanie’s stalker/arsonist father. Stephanie’s only social circle is the group of fellow nerds that form her customized chat group or “clowder” (the collective noun for a bunch of cats) on CatNet, a web community fu­eled mostly by uploaded cat pictures. Transcripts from this chat group, which varies widely in terms of racial, economic, and gender identity, make up the remainder of the chapters.

While the emergent AI is easily Kritzer’s major SF focus, there are a few other elements meant to suggest a barely near-future setting – ubiqui­tous multipurpose drones, self-driving cars and trucks, a restaurant run entirely by robots – which, together with its folksy small-town Midwestern setting, lend the novel the odd but not unpleas­ant feel of a familiar high school fitting-in drama dropped into a Gibsonian technoscape, not too far removed from those of Cory Doctorow’s YA novels. One such element, a robot programmed to deliver overly cautious sex-ed classes, is what sets the immediate plot in motion: one of Stepha­nie’s clowder-mates, a skilled hacker known as CheshireCat, finds a way to reprogram the robot to offer frank and truthful answers, resulting in one of the novel’s more effective comic scenes. Steph comes under suspicion (correctly, more or less), risking exposing her identity and thus having her mother immediately whisk her off to another random town – something that Stephanie fears, since she’s forming a genuine meatspace friendship with one of her fellow students named Rachel. But, in what is easily the most convenient plot-coupon that Kritzer permits herself, the mother is suddenly hospitalized with peritonitis, leaving Stephanie and her friends to deal with the growing danger that her father may be close to tracking her down.

This is the point at which, according to the rules of good pacing, the novel needs to open up from its rather claustrophobic small-town setting, and Kritzer manages this masterfully. We learn that the superhacker Clowder member CheshireCat is actually the AI who’s been narrating (not re­ally a spoiler, since it’s foreshadowed enough that most readers will already know this), and that Stephanie’s father is as relentless and scary as advertised. (Earlier, we might have harbored doubts, given her mother’s paranoia and periods of almost catatonic depression.) When the AI sud­denly and inexplicably disappears from CatNet, Steph and her companions are forced to hatch a scheme on their own, which involves uncovering secrets about Stephanie’s true past and eventually planning a real-time meeting that involves cross-country journeys, hazardous confrontations, and still more revelations about Stephanie’s family. All the while, Kritzer keeps Stephanie’s budding friendship/romance with Rachel developing in emotionally convincing ways, while offering enough insights into the lives of other Clowder members to give the novel extra points not only for its diversity and treatment LGBTQA+ con­cerns, but for touching upon poverty and privilege at well. There are a few passages in which the AI narrator gets just a tad bit homiletic about acceptance and vulnerability, community and identity, and many in which she picks up the breezy locutions of her young friends – in which everything is “awesome” and “amazing” – but for the most part Catfishing on CatNet demon­strates its virtues rather than proclaiming them. That helps make it a first-rate YA novel, but, as is so often the case these days, it doesn’t prevent it from being stimulating near-future SF as well, with some serious questions on its mind.

Stray Bats, Margo Lanagan (Small Beer 978-1-61873-175-3, $10.00, 64pp, tp) November 2019.

Those who, like me, feel the occasional need for an infusion of Margo Lanagan’s visceral, sometimes knotty, and always elegant prose could do no better than to wander through the 50 short pieces of Stray Bats, many of them inspired by the work of Aus­tralian women poets. The poems themselves aren’t included – though a bibliography at the end tells us where to find them – but they’re hardly necessary to enjoy these evocative riffs, few more than a page long, some only a couple of short paragraphs, some essentially poems themselves. The topics are often characteristic of Lanagan’s fiction – witches, wise women, brides, ghosts, mermaids, outcasts, remote villages, animals (including a robot dog from a 3D printer, a couple of dragons, and of course those bats). Some constitute whole stories, such as the tale of a dragon who, on his wedding night, strips off all his layers until there’s nothing left, or another of an apparent witch plotting against her unsuspecting neighbor, while others read like story-seeds, leaving us to fill in the blanks.

Occasionally, Lanagan invokes a familiar text, such as with a short piece called “Shrunken Alice” or another called “Foxwife”, but for the most part Stray Bats offers a succession of tantalizing glimpses into Lanagan-land, even though some are as fleeting as a glimpse from a passing bus. It’s worth the ride, though: one of the most amusing pieces, cast in the shorthand language of amateur online reviews, concerns a “Metonymian Buff-House” where presumably you go to get buffed or exfoliated. “It’s kind of confronting at first but when you walk out of there it’s like your old life is scrubbed away and you are ready for anything.” That’s not too far removed from what it feels like emerging from the unsettling but magical worlds of Lanagan’s delight­fully idiosyncratic prose.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.

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