Company Town

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To my regret, it’s been a long while since I last posted. I’ve been very busy, as I now have three jobs so I’m always on the go! (Two bookstores, and a paper store. Living the dream.) Still, things have settled a bit and I’m getting into a routine so I’m back now. I’m hoping to be able to get back to more regular posts once more, so stay tuned.

After being on hold at the library for more than a month, I’ve finally received more of this year’s Canada Reads finalists. It’s with great pleasure that I bring you today’s review.

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Company Town was the Canada Reads candidate I was most eager to read this year. I love sci-fi, and especially more speculative stuff. Throw in the fact that Madeline Ashby is also a ‘strategic foresight consultant’, and I was chomping at the bit to get to this title.

I raced through this novel at lightning speed, reading whenever I could squeeze in the time.

The narrative follows Go Jung-Hwa, a young woman living and working in New Arcadia – an oil rig city off the coast of Newfoundland. As an organic human in a society where most choose to augment themselves with machines and drugs, she is a rarity. She is also ‘stained’ by a birthmark that spans an entire side of her body, due to her rare seizure disorder.

Hwa works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada union members at the opening of the book. That right there made me fall in love with this story.

The legalization of sex work has been a hot button issue in Canada recently, especially in light of the Bedford case (2009-2013). Hwa’s friends, students, and mother are all sex workers. It was amazing to read about sex work in this context, as it was neither vilified nor exalted. The reader does get to see the different attitudes people hold towards the profession, which gives a lot of insight into those characters.

When New Arcadia is bought by the Lynch company, Hwa is thrust into a new corporate position. As she struggles to adjust to her new routine, her friends begin to die gruesomely. With a burning need to bring the killer to justice, Hwa uses all of the resources at her disposal and risks her own safety to see it done.

Reading about such a self-made and competent woman was brilliant. She can take down scary drugged up dudes twice her size, but still isn’t a paragon of perfection. At times she lacks confidence, which is revealed to be a rather serious flaw of hers. Her relationships with others are intricate and genuine. Even shunned by her loved ones, she works her hardest to do what she believes is the right thing. Even pushing others away, she recognizes that she could be pulling them closer. The romance that builds slowly in the novel didn’t feel out of place at all, despite the murder and mayhem sandwiching it.

Though set in the future, Company Town feels like it isn’t that far off from our current state of affairs. Clean energy solutions are still a thing of dreams and prototypes. Women are still treated in ways that should make you weep – illustrated by some disturbing conversations, and more graphic threats of rape, as well as physical violence. Corporations are entities whose machinations affect many lives, often for the worse. These things really helped ground this book for me – it seemed like a plausible situation, even when the technology came into play.

Cue cybernetic enhancement, self-replicating nanobots, artificial intelligence, and crossing timelines.

Boom.

These things were so perfectly entrenched in the world that Ashby created that I totally believed them. Though it got a bit confusing near the end, there was never that moment you sometimes get in sci-fi books when you’ve read some clearly bogus pseudoscience and it catapults you out of the story before you can roll your eyes. I stayed entrenched in the book the whole way through, and after re-reading a specific section things clicked for me and I knew exactly what was going on.

This was my favourite Canada Reads book so far, and I only have two left to go now. I certainly intend to pick up a copy of Company Town, and Madeline Ashby’s other books. And I can always hope that as a Toronto native, she visits my bookstore one day so that I can tell her in person how much I loved this. Hopers gotta hope.

Have you picked up Company Town yet? Did you love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation

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In late September I posted my fall TBR list, and I’m back today with a review of my fourth read from the list! When I added Invisible Planets to my list, I didn’t dare dream that I would get an advance review copy. To my delight that’s exactly what happened thanks to the kind folks at NetGalley and Tor. I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been reading it slowly to enjoy it – plus I’ve been getting more hours at my fantastic new dream job… so I’m extra sleepy when I get home and writing has passed me by a bit.

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As soon as I learned of Invisible Planets, I knew that I wanted to check it out. I’ve been more into science fiction lately, but reading diverse authors is also very important to me. Add in the fact that Ken Liu was the translator and I was absolutely sold on this book.

It certainly didn’t disappoint!

The book begins with a preface by Ken Liu giving a little bit of background on the stories included in the anthology. He also speaks about how “any broad literary classification tied to a culture (…) encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture.” He goes on to say some very interesting things that me think and appreciate the stories that followed even more. His note about translation at the end proves that the reader is in the right hands. (Don’t skip this introduction!)

Before each author’s stories is a short biography in which Ken Liu tells the reader about their accomplishments, styles, and the broader contexts of their work. A very necessary addition to the text, especially if you’re going to seek out more of the authors’ work.

First up were Chen Qiufan’s stories – the first wasn’t to my tastes, but the subject matter was interesting. The other two I did enjoy. The mix of realism with slightly sci-fi elements was compelling and Chen’s writing was concise, not a word wasted. He also authored one of the essays at the end of the anthology, which definitely illuminated some of the story themes seen here.

Next up was Xia Jia, who turned out to be my absolute favourite of this anthology! Her beautiful prose and imagery were both fantastical and absolutely believable. These were the kinds of beautiful stories I enjoy reading aloud based purely on their lovely construction. In saying that, they were also the kind of soft science fiction that I’ve craving lately, though she describes her own work as ‘porridge SF’.  A tale of a boy who lives with ghosts, the story of a mechanical dragon-horse, and a story of innovation turned to an entirely new purpose round out her section. She also authored one of the essays in the book about what it is exactly that makes Chinese science fiction Chinese. I would buy this book for her stories alone.

Then came Ma Boyong, whose addition to this anthology was an eerie tale that was a nod to Orwell’s 1984, but also a commentary on a censorship regime that was published here in its original form rather than the altered one it was given to get past a real censorship regime. Now there’s an interesting twist, no? This tale straddled the line between bleak and inspiring, and I would have loved to see it as a novella to find out what happens to the main character.

Hao Jingfang is the author of the story for which the anthology is named, and it is certainly well deserved. She tells a tale of scores of planets that left me aching for more. Her small glimpses into these other worlds revealed an incredible gift of imagination and of storytelling that is again revealed in her next story. Her second story is a dystopian gem about a Beijing that folds up only to unfold again to reveal a city of vastly different demographics.

Tang Fei’s story of an unusual call girl was enrapturing. The surreal nature of the story was compelling, and this is another tale that I would love to see expanded as a novella or even a full novel.

Cheng Jingbo was next, with a fairy-tale like story that took some thinking to comprehend. The imagery was intensely unique, as was the concept itself.

Liu Cixin was last, though he is recognized as the leading voice in Chinese science fiction. His first story was an adaptation of a chapter from his novel ‘The Three-Body Problem’. It was ‘hard’ science fiction, of the kind that brings in undoubtable scientific elements. Not to my taste, but those who enjoy the works of the science fiction ‘greats’ will like this. The last story in the anthology was one that again showcased the wonders of science, but also the wonders and failings of mankind. Liu also authored an essay that explores the history of science fiction in China.

All together, I found this anthology absolutely fantastic. I would recommend it to anyone looking for not only science fiction, but also new authors to look out for. This is going on my favourites shelf and I’ll be following most of the authors within in the hopes that more of their work will be translated and made available in English. And of course, Ken Liu’s incredible skills as a translator mustn’t be overlooked. Every writer within clearly had a style of their own that was not lost to a change in language.

Thanks again to NetGalley and Tor who gave me the opportunity to explore these incredible new worlds!