Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to last year's award-winning Catfishing on CatNet, which I reviewed here. The protagonist from the previous book, Steph, her mother, and the artificial intelligence CheshireCat are back for another round, but this book is not a retread of the first. It introduces some intriguing new characters and takes the story in what I thought was an interesting direction.
The focus of this book is still on artificial intelligence gaining an ethical and moral outlook, but the emphasis is on choice, as in an AI's being able and allowed to make one. It also focuses on a near future only slightly different from our own, with often alarming things to say about how the internet, apps and social media can be used to mislead and manipulate people, as effectively as any cult leader. In fact, a second AI introduced in this book is more or less just that--a cult leader used by a renegade programmer in an attempt to cause chaos and war in society, in the name of a religious cult looking for (and maybe looking to start) the Tribulation.
Now that Steph and her mother are free from her stalker father, the two are able to settle in Minneapolis and live a somewhat normal life (at least as normal as a teenage girl with an artificial intelligence best friend can). Steph meets a new girl, Nell, at her school, and strikes up a friendship. Nell is also an outsider, a refugee from the cult the Abiding Remnant, taken in by her father (and her father's polyamorous household, with a stepmother and girlfriends she amusingly calls Things One, Two and Three). Nell, like Steph, is gay. She carries a lot of guilt over her orientation due to the cult's teachings, and she is trying to get in touch with the girlfriend, Glenys, she left behind.
Steph wants to help Nell, and she and CheshireCat end up being pulled into a web of deception, kidnapping, and societal upheaval, all orchestrated by the cult and the AI that is pulling its strings. We find out the second AI is actually a knockoff of CheshireCat, in an earlier iteration, and at the climax Steph's mother (a master programmer) is tasked with removing the "kill switch" from Boom Storm, the second A.I. (This is one of the things I liked about this book. The teenagers aren't unrealistically smarter and more competent than the adults, and Steph's mother has to reprogram the second A.I. and allow it to make its own choice not to hurt people.) In between, there is a lot of running and hiding in Minneapolis in the dead of winter, in a nicely paced thriller with steadily escalating stakes.
As always, CheshireCat is one of my favorite characters. They remain the optimistic, bouncy young person with an often naive innocence, loyal to their friends, still gaining experience about the world. They also have a great deal of power and are not averse to using it, in a reminder of the many potential flaws in our increasingly interlinked society--and even more so in this future, set a handful of years away (albeit with a lot more robots than I think we will have this decade).
To let off some steam, I return to the eight residential programs running conversion therapy [an unethical and pseudoscientific practice of trying to change gay people's sexual orientation], deactivate their antivirus software, and download the five most destructive computer viruses I know of onto all their computers that are connected to the internet. Maybe this will help a few people like Glenys, even if I can't help Glenys right now.
Steph, Nell and CheshireCat are the three rotating POV characters, which serves to open up the world nicely. This series showcases the strength of friendship and the importance of gaining an ethical outlook and being able to make one's own choices. (Since it's set in Minneapolis, it's also an unwitting commentary on policing and Black Lives Matter protests. The author says she wrote Minneapolis how she hopes to see it: "Steph, of course, refers to anyone in uniform as a 'cop'--but one reason there's such a dramatic contrast between the aggressive bullies working in law enforcement who appear in Catfishing on CatNet and the gentle concern that she encounters here is that this is what I want to see--people who approach problems to solve them rather than who approach citizens to subdue them.") There's a lot going on here under the surface, besides being an exciting and satisfying story, and it's definitely for adults who appreciate the social commentary science fiction can bring.
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