What’s more Internet than cats? Nothing for the Midwestern teens and their AI friend in Naomi Kritzer’s Locus winning novel, Catfishing on CatNet. An AI that calls itself CheshireCat runs a social media site, CatNet, where users communicate and are divided into “clowders” based on the cat pictures they share. In reality, they’re all teenagers living in the near future where robots teach sex ed in high school when the school can’t or doesn’t want to find a teacher. Against this backdrop, Steph can never seem to fit into a high school since her mother keeps her on the move all the time. She finally lands in New Coburg, Wisconsin, just as her mother falls sick, which leaves just enough of a window for her abusive father to catch up with them.
Steph’s only friends are on the Internet, but she quickly finds herself in a small high school in a small town. Her mother holes up and begins working on an online coding project. She doesn’t quite stay long enough to meet any bullies, but she does catch the eye of the pretty, artsy, girl, Rachel, who convinces her to hack the sex ed robot. Unfortunately, this sends up a flare to her father who monitors all possible channels for any sign that could be Steph or her mother. Meanwhile, CheshireCat chooses to “come out” to Steph and reveal to her that it is an AI program and not a fellow CatNet user. CheshireCat decides to flex its digital muscles and tries to help Steph evade her father by hacking delivery drones, self driving cars, and yes, even that sex ed robot.
Great computer logic puzzles are back. Cheshire Cat calls to mind the classic robots of Asimov’s science fiction stories, even going so far as to give Asimov himself a shoutout. The ethics of bot-hacking in the name of protection of a favored human twist the laws of robotics in knots. Meanwhile, the debate rages on whether AIs can really be people, or if we can really assign a definition to people based on cellular biology alone. Cheshire Cat challenges that definition by providing a personality, an intellect, and a genuine love for a specific group of friends. And a love of cat pictures.
Unfortunately, the Midwest as depicted through Steph’s eyes gives little insight than Midwestern stereotypes. It’s flat, the people are backward, yadda yadda. Furthermore, the obstacles thrown at Steph by the setting sometimes defy logic. Steph routinely laments that her high school only has two years of Spanish, and when I mentioned this to my wife, a rural high school teacher, she immediately asked why they wouldn’t enroll her in an online class, as many high schools already use. For that matter, her Internet-savvy mom probably could have cooked up a curriculum that meant that Steph didn’t even have to go to high school.
Most of the bumps in Steph’s road get smoothed out by her friendship with Cheshire Cat, though a mysterious third party keeps interfering, leaving this novel ending on a cliffhanger. Steph and Cheshire Cat’s escapades features classic high school hijinks as a way to ask questions about the future might bring for education, whether it be taught by robots or on the Interwebs.
Three stars out of five
Page count: 296 pages