How much does the internet know about YOU? A thought-provoking near future YA thriller that could not be more timely as it explores issues of online privacy, artificial intelligence, and the power and perils of social networks.
Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.
When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.
Catfishing on CatNet is a surprising, heartfelt near-future YA thriller by award-winning author Naomi Kritzer, whose short story “Cat Pictures Please” won the Hugo Award and Locus Award and was a finalist for the Nebula.
As promised by the blurb, the story does go to some extent into thought-provoking questions on how much information about us is available to any serious hacker or an AI and how trusting we are of the good intentions of those who have become a member of our social network closer circle. But it isn’t all dark and gloomy, quite the opposite. It is more about our fundamental desire to make friendships and find people we belong with.
Steph Taylor has changed six high schools. Her slightly paranoid mother keeps moving every couple of months and Steph hasn’t even worked out what triggers these frequent moves. Mom says Steph’s father is a psychopath and convicted arsonist and the only way to keep safe is to keep a low profile and run at the first sign of danger. Steph would do anything to keep her mom happy, but their lifestyle choice also means she has never had time to make any real friends or develop a crush. The only permanent feature in Steph’s life is CatNet a social network site where cat (or any other animal picture at a pinch) pictures serve as a currency and where everybody is put in big chat groups called Clowders. Steph (or Little Brown Bat /LBB) feels her Clowder are the only people who can understand and relate to her. To be fair, they are supportive and respectful of each other. Then, she notices that one of the members of the group is always online. A few days later a strange event involving a hacked package delivery drone makes her think that somebody in her Clowder may be not telling the whole truth.
The story is told from three points of view: Steph, her Clowder chat, and an AI being (if you’ve read the blurb you already know that they are the admin of the site). The events move forward quickly and there is never a dull moment as Steph makes new real-life friends in her new town, re-programs a sex ed robot with the help of her online friends, and escapes her father- the homicidal maniac/ wannabe world dictator.
The characters are very sweet, especially the AI/Cheshire Cat who does grapple with serious ethical questions in a very human way. There isn’t really anything dark or scary about this book, apart from Stephanie and her mom’s life of perpetual nomads. On the other hand, Steph seemed to act quite selfishly, so it is up to the reader to decide whether they like her character, are annoyed by her, or simply accept her as a typical teenager with her own set of flaws. There is diversity in characters and LGBTQIA representation, which makes the story stand out of the usual coming of age YA novels. I also liked the way it is stressed that nobody should be rushed into a romantic relationship, especially if they need time to work out their feelings.
Some of the things in the plot are far-fetched, and I still think everything works out a bit too neatly in the end. The events may appear just one big rollercoaster of adventure, but I hope the serious issues of how new technology is redefining privacy or how the differences between virtual and real-life friendships are getting blurred are also going to be noticed by the readers of this entertaining novel.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Tor for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest opinion.