The first read (that I’m blogging about; I finished reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis out loud to my daughter, but I usually don’t blog about those reads) of the new year, and one of the promts of the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge that I would be the most difficult to fulfill: a book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character. I’m not the world’s biggest sci-fi fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would read for this…and then I remembered Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen, 2019), which I’d already requested that my library buy, both thanks to this article on NPR, and other reasons I’ll get to in a bit. It fits this prompt perfectly and kept me on the edge of my seat (and laughing!) until the very last page.
Steph has spent her whole life moving from town to town; she and her mother have been on the run from Steph’s arsonist father for as long as she can remember. Steph knows the rules: don’t get too close to anyone, don’t give out any important information, and never share your picture online. All of these rules have made making friends impossible, but Steph has found solace on CatNet, a social network where cat pictures are currency and where the people in her group (known appropriately as a ‘clowder,’ the term for a group of cats) totally get her, and she gets them. It’s the one place Steph feels like she belongs.
This new school, despite its lack of rigorous academics and its lame sex ed-teaching robot, shows signs of promise. Rachel, an artist, seems like someone Steph could be friends with. But Steph’s past- along with a few mysterious truths- comes calling, and after a member of her clowder steps in to help, she learns this friend isn’t the human being she’d been picturing, but a sentient AI (who goes by the screen name CheshireCat). With Rachel, CheshireCat, and the other members of her clowder, Steph goes on a cross-country dash in order to save herself and her friends, but there’s so much more at stake than just that.
Again: I’m not really a fan of sci-fi, most thrillers that involve people being on the run, robots and AI, etc, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Catfishing on CatNet has been on my list since before its release. I read Naomi’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories in 2017 and absolutely loved every single story- a rarity for me, as I usually don’t care for short stories (thanks for ruining those for me, seventh grade English teacher…). Cat Pictures Please is one of those books I recommend to everyone; my friend Sharon describes it as “great science fiction short stories that (usually ) start out as normal domestic scenes and then get turned a little sideways,” and this description is spot-on. They’re a little like Stephen King’s less creepy and more fantastical short stories, which I always loved. The other reason Catfishing and Cat Pictures Please ended up on my TBR lists…
I’ve known Naomi since 2002, when we were both part of the same small-ish online parenting group. She’s always been one of my favorite posters and I’ve been delighted to watch her success as a writer grow. (And another huge delight is being able to hear Naomi’s voice in her writing. Sometimes- and it was way more obvious in Cat Pictures Please, though she came through loud and clear in Catfishing– a line or a paragraph would pop up that sounded so much like her that I would actually laugh out loud to be able to ‘hear’ my friend’s voice in such a format.) If Catfishing weren’t up to snuff, I’d have no problems saying so; our parenting site taught us well to take seriously harsh criticism (it was that kind of site, the gloves came off at the door!), but Naomi being a friend is just incidental to this (and I wanted that out there as full disclosure). Catfishing is fabulous (and I’ve been joking in our private groups that Naomi totally named her main character after me).
CheshireCat, the sentient AI, is a joy to read. While they’re able to parse information at lightning-fast speeds, they’re still figuring out emotions and how to interact with humans, and they don’t always get it right, leading to scenes that had me laughing out loud multiple times in public. During one scene, Steph and crew conspire to get ChesireCat to take over her sex ed class’s robot (which only provides information on abstinence; all other questions receive a curt, “You’ll have to ask your parents about that”) in order to teach them actual, factual information. No spoilers, but the results are amazing.
Steph is sympathetic, a friendless teenager who’s been on the run her entire life, desperate for a place to fit in and to call home. Her clowder fills in the gaps for her lack of social life (total #goals, by the way; they’re placed together by CatNet, which- no spoilers!- has done a fabulous job of grouping together kids who need and understand each other, and I loved this so much), but real-life Rachel, and to a lesser extent Bryony, are the real-life connection Steph has been dreaming of.
This ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel. I’ll be pestering my library to purchase that one as well, because frankly, I want more of Steph, her ‘meatspace’ friends, her clowder, and definitely more of CheshireCat. Catfishing on CatNet really made me want to live in a world where AIs can become sentient (at least, in a benevolent CheshireCat-like manner), because I could really use someone like CheshireCat in my life, someone to have my back and save the day by zipping through the internet at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t we all use that?
So, to sum it up, if you like fast-paced YA, or you’re looking for something to fill the robot/cyborg/AI prompt in this year’s PopSugar challenge, Catfishing on CatNet is one you won’t want to miss! (And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, because it’s AMAZING.)