Technology is status. Technology is power. And when technology becomes part of our bodies, the distance between the haves and the have-nots becomes wider than ever.
In Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, every child is engineered to correct genetic “defects,” and everyone has technological augmentations to enhance their organic abilities. Well, almost everyone. Hwa’s family is poor. Not only does she lack the augmentations other people rely on, but she has a medical condition that in most people would have been corrected long ago. When a new company takes over her town, her “organic” status becomes an unexpected asset — it gets her a job protecting the company heir from assassination.
I love a lot of things about this book. At its heart, it’s a story about power and privilege multiplied by the impact of technology. When lacking access to the right technology determines your options before your birth, amplifying the effects of race, class, and wealth, it can be almost impossible to break out of that feedback loop and succeed despite the disadvantages.
Hwa starts the novel with almost no power. Her “ugliness,” as she sees it, her unmodified face and the “stain” that half covers it, keeps her job options and social opportunities limited. Her lack of augmentations, which she notes repeatedly is not a choice, but a situation forced upon her by her poverty, makes social interaction even harder. People in her town literally do not see her — their visual implants edit out her face, and scanners (including door sensors) don’t recognize her as a person. That’s not pure science fiction — it’s well established that face recognition software is more likely to recognize people of certain races, namely white people, while ignoring others — but when this sort of technology becomes pervasive, it traps people like Hwa on the outside of society.
But taking advantage of these new technologies has downsides for the users, too, when it comes to privacy and autonomy. In the world of Company Town, the corporate government has access to all data, and the more biotech a person has in their body, the more the company knows. Security cameras are everywhere, all networked together. The company has a private, cross-referenced database of people’s activities that Google would envy. Even Hwa isn’t immune: her wearables give her boss constant access to her eyes, ears, and biometrics. That comes in handy when Hwa gets into trouble protecting her client, allowing her boss to show up when she shows an elevated heart rate in proximity to a police alert — but even if her boss is a good guy and not a creep, that’s still invasive as hell.
And if you think the danger from hackers creating a credit card breach is bad, wait until you see what happens when bad guys can hack people’s brains.
Hwa is also among my favorite Strong Female Leads. Despite her limitations, she’s a total badass. She can beat up toughs twice her size and send them running in fear. Unlike many heroines, she never uses sexuality to get what she wants — that’s not a tool in her arsenal. But she’s smart, kind, and generous. She looks out for her friends, teaches self-defense to sex workers, and while she carries deep hatred and suspicion of her corporate employer, she’s got a soft spot for her boss and a deep loyalty toward her young charge. Best of all, she solves her own problems. I particularly love that her boss is constantly rushing to her rescue, but always gets there too late, after she’s sorted things out on her own.
All in all, I adored this book: an atypical heroine in a disturbingly believable setting, kicking butt and taking names.