December 24, 2019

Review: Catfishing on CatNet

Catfishing on CatNet Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the novel-length expansion of Kritzer's charming Hugo-winning story, "Cat Pictures Please." The original was a funny, whimsical little story of a newly emergent artificial intelligence who wants to help people and look at cat pictures. This expansion has that, but it also asks pertinent questions about the ubiquitous intertwining of the internet into our lives, and how an AI develops a conscience and a set of ethics.

It's set just a few minutes (a decade or so) into the future, where 25% of cars on the road are self-driving, and robots teach sex ed (in a hilarious sequence where the protagonist and the AI reprogram said robot to answer questions with accurate information instead of the standard chickenshit "You must talk to your parents about [subject]" answer). Our protagonist, Steph--or Stephania--lives with her mother, a woman on the run from Steph's father, a charming psycopath. The very first scene in the book has Steph's mother hauling her out of the town where they're living in the middle of the night and moving to another small town. Because of this chaotic lifestyle, Steph has no friends other than her online friends on CatNet, a suspiciously well-run site with no spam and an admin, CheshireCat, who appears to be constantly online.

But Steph's past is buried in secrets, as she begins to discover. In the process, her friends on CatNet, and especially CheshireCat, become even more important as those secrets begin to unravel. CheshireCat, of course, is our very young and inexperienced AI, whose actions are pretty much the definition of "unintended consequences." CheshireCat faces some tough ethical dilemmas throughout this story, and the author introduces an interesting formula for the AI's developing an ethical outlook. Put this together with the story's rather unnerving (especially at the climax) examination of how the internet is wound into society's every move, and you have a thought-provoking book, despite its teenage protagonists and fast pacing.

Steph is a well-drawn character, and the characters as a whole are so very teenage. (The scene where Steph and her new friends Rachel and Bryony are fleeing from Steph's father while Rachel and Bryony are simultaneously fighting in the front seat of the car particularly struck me as being true to life.) The only quibble I have about the plot is what I thought was an unnecessary side point of just why Michael Quinn, Steph's father, is so hot to find her and her mother. I think it diluted the domestic violence angle of the story, and also diluted Quinn's worth as a villain. But seeing CheshireCat stumble, make mistakes and learn in the fight to protect its friends was a delight.

This storyline was pretty well wrapped up, but the last chapter and epilogue set things up for a sequel. I'm definitely up for it.

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