Catfishing on CatNet
In 2016, Yoon Ha Lee introduced servitors who might have a mind of their own in Ninefox Gambit and then proceeded to develop them as a subplot, eventually introducing one who liked to re-cut its favourite media with better music. In 2017, Vina Jie-Min Prasad gave us Computron and its obsession with Hyperdimension Warp Record, and Martha Wells gave us Murderbot and its love of media.
In 2015, Naomi Kritzer had already given us the AI in “Cat Pictures, Please” who definitely doesn’t want to be evil and knows everything about you because you put your life on the internet and while it mostly likes looking at your cat pictures it also knows about your obsession with hentai, that you should buy this house over here, and that you really need a new job.
IN 2019, Kritzer produced Catfishing on CatNet which I finally got around to reading because it’s nominated for not-a-Hugo, the Lodestar Award for Best YA novel. And I am super pleased that I did finally get a chance to read it, because it was hugely enjoyable.
The novel follows the short story in that there is an AI, who is an occasional narrator; they do love cat pictures. Here, they’ve set up a social networking site that’s meant to be mostly about cat pictures but as always happens has become something more – not least thanks to the social engineering of the AI, who puts people in groups it thinks they will enjoy.
The focus, though, is on Steph. Steph is a teen who has moved around a lot because her mother is paranoid – and not without reason: Steph’s father was abusive, and her mother is determined not to be found by him. Steph has come up with coping mechanisms to deal with changing high schools a couple times a semester, sometimes; mostly it revolves around trying not to make friends. But at the new school, she starts making friends; and, of course, things do not go smoothly. For Steph, or for the cat-picture-loving AI.
There’s a lot to love about this novel. It’s fast-paced, which is unsurprising in a YA novel. It spends what feels like a nice amount of time setting up the school circumstances, as is appropriate for a YA story where that’s really the big deal for the main character; when things go wrong, they really go wrong and events move right along. There’s some excellent diversity – I can’t believe I still feel like this is something I need to say, and maybe it’s reflective of me being old and the target audience for this novel would just roll their eyes at me; whatever: there’s racial and gender and sexual diversity, and it’s an entirely natural part of the social landscape, as it should be. So is the commentary on the fact that there are racists and sexists and homophobes out there, but the kids kinda just… deal with it.
The AI is not the central character but its actions are central – without its interference/ help, events would unfold very differently. In the short story, the AI discusses how it has examined different moral and ethical codes, and frankly found them unhelpful in its own pursuit of correct action. That’s not explicitly in the novel, although there is some discussion of ethics; but the AI definitely does consider the rightness of its actions with regard to its human friends, and this conundrum – how best to act – informs a lot of what happens. And I love it, because of course these are the sorts of discussions we should be having.
The sequel to Catfishing is meant to be out soon. I’m very excited.