Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

A YA thriller with a warm fuzzy digital heart

Image result for catfishing on catnet

Fresh from stealing our hearts away in various pieces of short fiction, including the Hugo Award winning and highly zeitgeisty "Cat Pictures Please" and this year's Hugo finalist "The Thing About Ghost Stories", Naomi Kritzer is back with her first published novel in some time - and her science fiction debut - the much anticipated Catfishing on Catnet. Although my primary fandom is dogs, I also maintain an ongoing interest in cat-related media, and having been lucky enough to pick up a Catfishing on Catnet fridge magnet (yes, apparently some books have fridge magnets now!) this has been a very highly anticipated release for me, one which I'm pleased to confirm doesn't disappoint.

Catfishing on Catnet follows Steph, a teenager whose life has been defined by her mother constantly moving her to escape an abusive father she knows almost nothing about. Steph's mother claims that her Dad is an arsonist, who tried to burn down the house with them in it and is now hunting them down. Steph has no reason not to believe this (her Mom carries a laminated version of the article with the information in, after all) but is still not enamoured with having to change schools every few months, and the only real life friend she ever made was a girl she hasn't seen or heard from in over ten years. Luckily, Steph has friends that go with her everywhere she moves - the buddies she's made on an online chatroom system called CatNet, which only requires payment in animal pictures to use its services, and organises users into "Clowders" based on what Steph thinks are fancy algorithms, but what is actually the engineering of a benevolent AI trying to make its human users' lives better.

The AI of CatNet is, of course, the same AI from "Cat Pictures Please": a story which deals with the misadventures of an all-seeing intelligence trying to make humans happy while also learning how humans actually work. The kinds of actions taken by the AI in that story are reflected in some early scenes here: a bad teacher at Steph's school, for example, resigns after a delivery drone "accidentally" drops a load of books on how to quit your job and guidebooks for a city where her friend is conveniently hiring for a position in a totally different career. However, most of the time the AI - called CheshireCat by Steph and her Clowder based on its screenname in their group chat - is focused on the more serious issue of Steph's father, and the mystery surrounding both her parents. As CheshireCat becomes more invested in both the mystery of Steph's past and her wellbeing as one of its friends in its "favourite" Clowder, its actions start to increasingly expose its own identity, raising issues about trust and acceptance based on who we choose to be online.

What plays out from this is almost a sort of cosy thriller, starring some great mystery solving internet teens, as Steph's mother comes down with an illness and Steph becomes increasingly involved in piecing together the story of her family. With the support of her Clowder and CheshireCat, Steph also starts befriending a couple of girls at school, notably Rachel, an artistic prodigy who offers a rare note of non-internet friendship in her transient life. At around the halfway mark, the tone switches gears and Steph's "IRL" and "internet" spheres start overlapping, as events converge on the town of New Coburg and the risks to discovering the truth start to increase for everyone involved. Because of the book's mystery elements and the way its structured, there's not much I can say about the plot without starting to give things away, but I will note that despite the book's cover zeroing in on an ominous "how much does the internet know around you" tagline, Steph and the Clowder's suspicions never fall on CheshireCat, and neither are we directed to suspect it as readers (it is after all the first point of view voice we meet in the book). The focus in Catfishing on Catnet is quite definitely on the positive and negative ways in which humans use technology, rather than scaremongering about technology itself, and the focus never wavers from the fact that there are real, human people involved in this at every stage.

The rest of Steph's clowder - especially her best friend Firestar, and regular Clowder members Marvin, Hermione and Icosahedron - are great characters in their own right, with enough characterisation to bring their bonds with each other to life and make the AI's intention in bringing them together clear, without being too saccharine or co-opting the story. Catnet itself is portrayed as a niche app, which goes some way to mitigating the sense of anachronism of a group of near-future teenagers using a chatroom with handles and a complete lack of emojis and gifs. I should be clear that I can't speak to how much Catfishing on Catnet will actually speak to the internet of teenagers now, rather than the inner teenager of a millennial in her 30s, but I'd like to hope that its hitting on something timeless. Subcultures of people forming bonds exclusively online, rather than using the internet to augment connections with their existing friends, is perhaps niche enough anyway that Catfishing on Catnet doesn't need to be about the evolution of AirDrop and TikTok into whatever teens will be using in the era when their sex ed classes are being taught by awkwardly programmed robots and self-driving cars are a real, but not uncontroversial, development.

Overall, Catfishing on Catnet offered a great reading experience, blending together insights on internet culture and use of technology with a thriller-esque plotline that kept me turning the pages without overstaying its welcome. Though I can't speak to how particular cultural elements will land with people actually within the YA age bracket, its characters feel real and sympathetic and their use of an internet chatroom - albeit an extraordinarily well curated one - makes sense within the context of their respective lives.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Great interactions between teenagers, AI and adults which takes online friendship seriously

Penalties: -1 Not as many CheshireCat antics as the original short story

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Kritzer, Naomi. Catfishing on Catnet (Tor Teen, 2019)