Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Breathing her name with a sigh: on Ashby's Hwa

@MadelineAshby's Company Town (recommended to me by Jessica Langer of Centennial College in Toronto), is an exploration of what it means to be Hwa, Ashby's main character in this excellent addition to cyberpunk.  I mean, for me, it was Hwa that made the book worth reading, but it is really also the excellent craft and artistry that is apparent on each and every page, from the dialogue to descriptions of settings, and not least the action.

This is an action-packed book that rocked my world with its unflinching depictions of fighting, like stuff straight out of the Matrix, but the protagonist here is an emotionally vulnerable skull-cracker hired to protect "the youngest Lynch", a member of a family that controls a vast set of oil rigs off the coast of Labrador.  This setting is my other favourite thing about CT

These rigs are vast and interconnected, and they go 'all the way down' into the sea floor, in a dense amalgamation of architectures, dwellings, streets, public spaces, and just about anything else you can find in a 'normal' city, but here set on what we usually associate with equipment for extracting crude from beneath earth's crust that inconveniently happens to also be covered by ocean water.  These rig-cities are unique, from what I can tell, in literature but I'm sure there's something out there in the SF back catalogue that is similar.

There's also a very strong Canadian element to CT, from the references to provincial employment and union practices (it seems a lot of the people in this dystopian future are unionised, which is therefore by definition not so dystopian), to the way people speak and interact.  Though there was a delightful inclusion of Scottish-inflection and choice of words as well, that is well-nigh Nova-Scotian in orientation (the extensive use of the affirmative 'aye' for 'yes' for example).

The density of the cities came off very well, and this density is reflected in the language and in the action of the book.  Action sequences are varied, and very realistic, and backed up in the character by extensive knowledge of training regimens and eating habits of runners, fighters, and the like.  This is really a big appeal for me, because I'm also a runner and as a runner I feel compelled to build my strength as well, so I don't wither away.  I was rooting for Hwa in the same way.  She makes me feel strong, stronger than I am by a long shot, but relatable.

So you have Hwa the vulnerable fighter who is 'organic' for the most part; and who finds love; and whose aesthetic concerns about her own body tie very much into feminist concerns with the social construction of women's bodies and empowerment.  Oh, and then there's the very believable depictions of vulnerability, not least in the involvement of both Hwa's mother and best friend in sex work.

I know from having grown up in resource towns in British Columbia what it is like in those towns.  They had a reputation for violence, and in a place like Fort McMurray, there are just a lot of men with a lot of money looking to spend it, drinking a lot, and paying for sex.  They're not all that way, mind you, but I would never want to live in a town like Fort McMurray (I told lots of friends from down east this, and was often met with bewilderment: why not! there's so much money there! Everyone worshipping the 'rich' resource towns). 

I could relate to the Company Town itself, in other words, despite being a bit of a misfit in my own hometown of Terrace BC, a logging and service town with a history of the more ragged sides of resource-richness itself.

I'm not an expert in cyberpunk, but I've read enough to know that this is an excellent volume that while sitting uneasily within the sub-genre of cyberpunk, also straddles some other areas of literature.  It is, for one, Can-Lit, and I mean this in the most positive of ways (i.e. not in a Margaret Atwood-y way, it is very far from that).  The best Canadian literature is speculative and this can sometimes (for me) mean avant-garde, but more often it means engagingly well-crafted and innovative and forward looking.  I put both Andre Alexis's Fifteen Dogs and some Canadian indigenous science fiction into the same category (of Can-Lit). 

Company Town is, therefore, post-colonial in sensibility and post-human in outlook.  It fast-forwards, using Hwa as the button, to what a future might look like in which power takes many new and ever-more violent forms, in which invisibility is possible and used in frightening ways; terrorism is rife and even more unpredictable in the fluidity of its spacetimes; and the line between friend and foe is terrifyingly vague.  In the middle of all that is Hwa, and this is profoundly reassuring.

Hwa's being is shelled, both literally and metaphorically.  It is shelled from outside by the many layerings and augmentations of the 'new reality' of future technologies; and from within by Hwa's own insecurities and traumas.  The latter drive her, while the former seem to just bewilder (but productively). 

The materiality and mirroring of our current realities is very sophisticated here, a gritty fragmentation of society crystallised in the offshore dystopian pessimism of so much gone wrong.  The dialectic of time, and of the object is given a new evolution in this iteration, I can only hope for much more and many more new books, I'm hoping and wondering what the next ones will be.  Keep an eye on this extremely promising and accomplished writer.

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