I’m always on the lookout for Canadian Speculative Fiction authors, so when I saw that there was a cool noir-ish sci fi set in the Maritimes with a WOC lead written by a Canadian, it was kind of inevitable that I would pick it up.
Company Town revolves around Hwa, a half-Korean young woman who was born and raised in New Arcadia, an oil rig town in the middle of the Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland. Hwa is a kickass bodyguard for the Sex Worker’s Union, and is permanently disfigured. She gets involved with the new owners of the oil rig, the Lynch family (a likely reference to David Lynch the filmmaker, who’s cinematic style is an influence in this book), mainly by accident, but is soon drawn into plots, murders, and conspiracies galore, all amidst a very gritty, intricate society where the lines between biology and technology are being redrawn.
The worldbuilding is fantastic and fun. Like Becky Chambers’s Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, it’s extremely diverse and strange enough that it needs to be explained, but familiar enough that it’s plausible. There is some technobabble in here, but it’s by no means hard sci fi . It is kind of fun to know a little more about sci fi concepts like the singularity and multi-generation ships, but it’s not necessary and it’s explained fairly well in the book. The plot itself is complex, but not in a bad way, necessarily. It’s less like reading one plot, and more like reading 4 or 5 simultaneous plots. Like Hwa, you find yourself trying to find out what is really happening, how, and why. I think this actually makes the book stronger, because it doesn’t run into the problem of the mystery being predictable or obvious. In any case, it was extremely engaging, as evidenced by the fact that I read the whole book in less than 24 hours.
Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between when something could have been handled better and when something is just genre conventions. For example, Hwa gives a “not like other girls” vibe that threw me off for the most part, until I realized that she didn’t actually think she was better than the other women, but more that she was actually set apart because her life is so fundamentally different than others due to her disability/disfigurement and she has low self esteem. Also, traditionally, noir protagonists are a little more scruffy than other characters, and she’s comparing herself to sex workers who use their looks as part of their job and very rich ladies who have the time and ability to invest in their looks. It’s also worthwhile to note that Ashby dedicates the book to the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada, and deals with that subject in some capacity in her book, although I would have preferred it if the Indigenous ladies hadn’t had to suffer for the plot or be complete outcasts from society.
Ultimately, this story is in large part a noir murder mystery. Bad things are going to happen to good people, and those good people are more likely than not to be from a marginalized group, just because of the amount of diversity in the book-Almost every character who aren’t the Lynches are sex workers, LGBTQ+,POC, ect. I think it opens the way for discussion of what good and bad representation is, harmful tropes, disabilities, and other sensitive topics, but I also think that Ashby did a good job in creating an emotional, compelling story that wasn’t killing people off for shock value or thought of its characters as disposable. That, alongside with the mystery of the plot and the ambitious worldbuilding are more than enough reason to pick up the book.