The Hugo Award finalists have been announced and I’ve already got a head start on my reading. While I wait for the other books to finally come in from the library, I’ve already finished the first book on the list. And let me tell you, it’s a sleeper success.
How much does the internet know about YOU?
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.
I didn’t know what to expect from this YA sci-fi thriller. I don’t think I’ve read anything set in the real world with real technology and a tiny tinge of fiction in there to make it all impossibly possible. And yet, here we are with a book that I would have picked up years ago if I knew anything about it.
It follows Steph Taylor, a teenager whose been on the run with her mother from her estranged father. They’ve been running for the last ten years worried that Steph’s father will find them again. And it’s definitely messed with Steph’s mental health; trouble with making friends since they move so often, trouble with stability because they don’t stay in one place long enough. It felt like for much of the novel Steph was looking to find somewhere to belong, which is why she loved CatNet.
CatNet is an online community of people who love to share cat photos. Steph was able to find a specialized chatroom filled with friends she can always talk to regardless of where they lived. They don’t know her real name, what she looks like, or where she lives because her mother forces her to keep that information under lock and key. Much of her mother’s paranoia leaks into Steph’s life, but at the same time she just wants to be a regular teenager.
The technology in this story was probably the scariest part because it felt so real. While I don’t know if there’s conscious AI out there, I do know that the idea of sentient AI makes me nervous. What I know from similar sci fi movies (like the Terminator, I, Robot), you don’t want to be hanging out with these kinds of inventions. However, the AI in this book felt more like Haley Joel Osment in AI than it did Arnold Schwarzenegger and it made it more palatable.
In fact, the AI in this story reminded me a lot of Murderbot from Martha Wells’s series. Instead of a soap opera loving killing machine that protects its humans, it’s a sentient AI technology that loves cat photos and protecting its humans. Seriously, this book was Murderbot Lite for young people, so if you’ve ever loved Murderbot, then you’ll like this one as well.
In terms of thriller, this one is pretty mild. In fact, the story read more contemporary YA than it did sci fi or thriller. You read a lot of Steph’s POV; how she wants to make friends, how she finds Rachel to be a kindred spirit, and how she loves bats and photography. In fact, I really loved Steph throughout the story. She reminded me of so many people I knew in high school; the artsy weirdos who had a found family among their friends and never felt self-conscious around them. But the thriller elements were there and provided a level of suspense that kept me reading. It does get much deeper as the story progresses (sorry, no spoilers here) and I couldn’t put the book down without knowing what happens at the end.
And I loved how it ended! The story here definitely wraps up, but it opens it up for something bigger in book two. The second book, Chaos on CatNet, is the one that’s up for a Hugo award this year, so I’ll definitely grab that from the library and read it soon!