Thursday, April 22, 2021

Back to CatNet

 One thing I'd forgotten about blogging is the occasional feeling of having something SO IMPORTANT to say to a character that I can't continue reading for a little while. Sometimes it's a big emotional thing--"it's not your fault!" or "they love you, stupid!"--but often it's pretty straightforward horror movie-style "don't do that, you idiot!"

I'm in the middle of Chaos on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer's sequel to the absolutely lovely Catfishing on CatNet, and I haven't read it since yesterday because I couldn't process the enormity of my "do not do the stupid, dangerous thing you're about to do, Steph!" I am hoping to work through it here and get back to the book, because I want very badly to know what happens, so hopefully I can work through my feelings here and get on with the story.

We start with a quick recap of the last book, a one-page "when last we left our heroes" from our AI friend CheshireCat. The villain from book one is in jail and Steph and her mom are moving to a new city using such not-on-the-run techniques as signing up for things with their real names and communicating with long lost relatives. Steph starts school and sits down at a lunch table with a fellow new student, and we're off to the races.

Because this new student, Nell, has just been forced to leave a CULT and her mother is MISSING. Not enough is made, in my opinion, of the fact that she and Steph are both living the lives that major action movies are made of. Nell is a little awkward (as homeschooled apocalypse cultists tend to be), but she seems nice, and it turns out has a secret girlfriend, so she's pretty cool. 

Steph and Nell sign up for a social app that's popular at school, Mischief Elves. Nell also frequents an app called the Catacombs, where preppers hang out, so Steph joins that, too.

There, now I've dumped all the exposition on you, very much as it is dumped on you at the beginning of the book. Pretty much as soon as First Person We Encounter becomes Center of Action Drama, I became very skeptical. 

Fortunately, things improved very much from there. I feel like the book really starts about two or three chapters in, and from there it fits together and is paced appropriately. Then we retroactively get a "And Here's How We Got Here" beginning. I almost wish I'd been dumped into the middle of things to imagine Steph's first day at school and how her awkward new friendship started.

The story unfolds nicely--the two apps, Mischief Elves and Catacombs, send the girls on odd quests. CheshireCat gets pinged by someone who might be another AI, but are they good or evil? Why can't Nell reach her girlfriend back in her hometown? There are suspicions and growing concerns, road trips and danger. CheshireCat hacks their way into our hearts yet again. 

Now, though, where I am deep in the book, when she's been chased by gunmen and been to meetings of angry preppers, when she explicitly suspects that whoever's behind this app has at the very least ulterior if not nefarious motives, Steph takes the advice of this VERY SUSPICIOUS APP that she herself is VERY SUSPICIOUS OF and sneaks out in the middle of the night without letting her mom know to look for her friend who's not answering her phone.

The very suspicious villain has walked up to our hero and said "I have your mom behind this door, and if you rush in you can save her. Go on! Rush in!" and she's DOING IT. It just feels very, very stupid for a pretty smart person like Steph.

So yeah, it's a rollocking adventure, but right now I'm pretty angry at the MC, and the author's going to have to make it up to me before too long or I'm gonna be annoyed at this book.

I'm postdating this blog post to be closer to the release date (because I received an ARC for review and am reading it early, go me!), so I'll keep you updated on how it turns out.

Let me say, though, that I am just really enjoying the book on a many levels. As with the previous book, there's some lovely representation very explicit in the plot--Nell's dad, whom she comes to live with when her mom goes missing, is in a polyamorous relationship and lives with his new wife and both their girlfriends, and it's mostly a big happy family, though not portrayed as perfect. There aren't that many new characters, but there's a lot of incidental queerness that is just nice to see.

CheshireCat also spends some very interesting time contemplating the nature of manipulation, and the ethics of the kind of manipulation it does (nudging people in specific directions with internet ads and sudden lapses in internet access and maybe a slightly late bus) and some similar but more explicit things that Other AI is doing. 

The question of whether a benevolent manipulator is good or bad in the abstract--and how definitions and assessments of benevolence affect how that question is even discussed--is something I find fascinating, and I don't think our superhero-obsessed society spends enough time on either the abstract or practical implications of vigilantism. While the discussion on that hasn't been deep yet, I really love seeing it laid out explicitly.

I think I've written my way past my hump. Pardon the long post, though; I'm rusty and I had a lot to say. I'll let you know how it turns out!

(Postscript: The story was good and I enjoyed the book, but in the end, it didn't dig in quite enough on either whether some of these characters' choices were reasonable OR on the abstract question of whether a benevolent AI dictator would be a good thing or a bad thing. For more on the latter, check out the Prisoners of Peace series by Erin Bow.)