Company Town by Madeline Ashby is a strange sci-fi novel.

This strange sci-fi novel got a lot of attention from critics, earning nominations for several awards (among them, finalist for the 2017 Locus Award for a Science Fiction Novel). It’s easy to see why. Unlike so much science fiction, Company Town was virtually free of the annoying anachronisms that place contemporary brand names in far-future scenarios. More important, author Madeline Ashby builds a world that is far different from the simple extrapolations of current trends that so many other authors rest their stories on.

Company Town is set several hundred years in the future in a town that has grown up around a drilling rig in the North Atlantic off the Newfoundland coast. The town, New Arcadia, has been purchased by the huge, multinational Lynch corporation. Go Hwa-jung, a young half-Korean woman who goes by Hwa, works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada as the story opens. She is “100% organic,” having shunned the implants and other “augments” that prolong the lives and lend new abilities to virtually everyone around her.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby (2016) 288 pages @@@½ (3½ out of 5)

However, Hwa somehow manages to disguise what she thinks of as her ugliness. “His eyes were not programmed to see her true face,” Hwa muses, “or the stain dripping from her left eye down her neck to her arm and her ribs and her leg. She had tested his vision several times; he never stared, never made reference to her dazzle-pattern face . . . He could spend every minute of every day observing her, and never truly see her.” The man Hwa is thinking about is a trusted Lynch employee who becomes her supervisor after the company’s purchase of the town. He “probably had a perfect metabolism. It would be a combination of deep brain stimulation that kept him from serotonin crashes, a vagus nerve implant that regulated his insulin production, and whatever gentle genetic optimization he’d had in utero. He was a regular goddam Übermensch.”

Ingenious writing of this sort kept me deeply engaged in the novel nearly all the way to the end. So I was expecting a more satisfactory resolution of the murder mystery at the core of the novel’s plot. Unfortunately, Ashby resorts to what writers of old called a deus ex machina. I can only imagine that this flaw is what kept this otherwise superb novel from winning those prizes it was nominated for.

Madeline Ashby is not just a science fiction writer. She’s a “strategic forecast consultant”—a futurist—who has, according to her bio on Amazon, “developed science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, the Atlantic Council, Data & Society, InteraXon, and others.” No wonder she could write such a strange sci-fi novel!

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