The Big Idea: Madeline Ashby
Madeline Ashby takes a while to summarize her work, including her latest novel, Company Town. But as you’ll see in this big idea, this isn’t (just) because she’s not great at making a fast pitch. It’s because there’s a whole lot going on in what she writes.
Veronica Mars versus The Terminator.
That’s how I came to think of my latest novel, Company Town, available today from Tor Books. I wish I could tell you that I’d made that pitch right from the start. But in truth, my pitching game just isn’t that strong. When I pitched my first novel, vN, I rambled on for a full half-hour before the editor smiled patiently and told me I should work on my pitching technique. He bought the book anyway.
I do get better at describing my novels after I’ve been working on them, for a while. It’s a bit like trying to explain a dream to one’s therapist: you think the nightmare is about a blinding black fog that swallows you whole, but as you narrate it, you realize it’s really about depression. I often feel that I don’t truly know what the book is “about” until I’m writing posts like these. And I rarely come up with a catchy, high-concept elevator pitch until far too late in the game.
“It’s about seeing,” I told some students at the University of Toronto about Company Town. I was there to answer questions about vN, which they’d been assigned to read and discuss. They asked about my next book, and I described it in much the same way io9 did, only with a lot more rambling and cursing: “In the near future, everybody is enhanced, with implants and other improvements that make them stronger, smarter, and more on top of everything that’s going on. Except for one person, Hwa—and her lack of enhancements turns out to be her superpower. Hwa works as a bodyguard, protecting sex workers in an oil rig that’s basically its own independent city state. But after the oil rig is bought by the wealthy Lynch family business, Hwa gets roped into protecting the youngest member of the Lynch family, instead. And meanwhile, someone is killing local sex workers, Jack-the-Ripper style.”
What that summary doesn’t mention until later is that Joel Lynch, the boy Hwa is charged to protect, appears to be receiving death threats from the future. Hwa figures the threats are bullshit, and suspects someone within the family of trying to de-stabilize Joel’s position as the heir apparent. It’s a classic noir plot: the bad-ass brought in to do a dirty job, who discovers family secrets in the family business. Only these family secrets have to do not just with big money and real estate and inheritance, but the future itself, and one very ruthless vision of it.
In my other line of work, I help people design for the future. Which means imagining many possible futures, and encouraging others to do the same. After all, as Alex Steffen is fond of saying, you can’t build what you can’t imagine. That’s the guiding principle of a lot of strategic foresight work, and it’s also a principle of Project Hieroglyph, an anthology and an ongoing project I am happy to participate in.
But doing this work means that you run up along a lot of different visions of the future, some of them not so nice, and some of them just plain horseshit. Once at a conference, I was doing a book signing with a prominent transhumanist who told a man in his sixties that yes, there would be more time to make up with his kids. Yes, even though he hadn’t spoken to them in years. Yes, he could expect a series of innovations — neural implants, smart drugs, genetic editing, whatever — to prolong his lifespan so that he could make up for whatever he’d done wrong. He said this with a straight face. Maybe he even believed it. To this day, I’m not sure.
Experiences like that got me thinking about competing futures. About how so many people view the future as a zero-sum game: I win, you lose. “Who are the winners and losers in this scenario?” is a question I get asked, a lot. Barring a major disruption (like, say, the arrival of the Internet, or the arrival of penicillin, or the birth control pill, or, or, or…) the answer is usually that the “winners” then will probably be the winners now, and the “losers” then will probably be the losers, now, because structures of power exist solely to perpetuate themselves and therefore the status quo. But thinking about “winners” and “losers” elides the variety of experience along a spectrum of possible futures, and offers only a narrow view of success or failure. The dystopia is already here. It’s just unequally distributed.
Company Town gets called a dystopia, and on some level, I guess it is. It’s a world of rampant genetic discrimination, and uncontrolled corporate oligarchy. Poverty still exists. But in a lot of ways I think it may be my most optimistic novel, yet. There’s alternative energy and vertical farming. Sex work is decriminalized and unionized and for the most part it’s a lot safer. It takes place in Canada, so there’s socialized medicine. (But it takes place in Atlantic Canada, so abortion access was once limited.) And those implants? And gene therapies? They actually work.
It’s not always great. But it’s not always awful, either. And that’s the future.