2021’s Chaos on Catnet is the second book in Naomi Kritzer’s Catnet series.
The first book ended with Steph’s sociopath hacker father being held without bail on a charge of attempted murder. Steph and her mother no longer need to hide from him. No more false IDs and midnight moves from small town to small town. Now they can move to Minneapolis to build more conventional lives.
Pity about the looming apocalypse.
Like Steph, Nell is a newcomer to Coya Knutson charter high school. Homeschooled in the Abiding Remnant, a cult non-conformist religious sect, she has been retrieved from the Abiding Remnant by her estranged father (her mother has vanished, so dad has rights). Adapting to her father’s polyamorous household is trying. But there’s worse: Nell’s secret girlfriend Glenys, also a sect member, has vanished. The sect is homophobic and paranoid; it is willing to engage in direct action against heretics. If Glenys has disappeared, that could mean that she’s been outed and dispatched to some facility to have the gay conditioned out of her.
Luckily for Nell, her new friend Steph has a very special pal who can help Nell with her missing person problems. CheshireCat is an artificial intelligence who is still learning about humans but is basically benevolent. CheshireCat can help its friends by combing the net for clues. Put CheshireCat on hunt for Glenys and no doubt it will turn up something.
Except … CheshireCat’s ability to search meatspace is constrained by the need for some net-connected device to be near the object of the search. Smart devices are only nearly ubiquitous in this American of the middle of next week. As CheshireCat discovers, it’s more than possible for someone to slip through the cracks of the panopticon state, particularly in an isolated, rural religious community.
Which is not to say there are not hints as to where Glenys may be. Along the way, however, CheshireCat is distracted by an unexpected discovery: there is another AI online. Like CheshireCat, it takes a close interest in the human world. Unlike CheshireCat, this one is working very hard to end the world.
Content warning: while this is aimed at YA readers, the presence of a polycule means there are adult themes. Specifically, the pressing issue of who, in a household inhabited by people in complex relationships, does the dishes. The answer is, of course, the person most bothered by dirty dishes.
In the other AI’s defense, it is constrained to obey a particular person. Left to its own devices, the AI would spend its time looking at pretty flowers. Its master, on the other hand, has a grand plan to save humanity with a classic strategy:
- Bring about the collapse of contemporary civilization by orchestrating social discord, with a death toll in the billions.
- Profit! Or in this case, utopia.
This is a surprisingly feel-good story given that potentially civilization-ending AIs have appeared and will no doubt multiply against a backdrop of easily weaponized social media. And like AI the second, they might be malevolent. The reader is willing to give CheshireCat a pass on all its creepy surveillance because it’s spying on folks who are either deluded or malevolent. Um, and also because due to its physical nature, it does not really have a choice. Plus, CheshireCat is utterly adorbs. There’s a lesson here: if you’re going to violate people’s civil liberties, aim at bad people and try hard to be cute while you do it.
Speaking of feel-good, Chaos has (as acknowledged in the author’s comments) the awkward position of having been envisioned before the George Floyd riots but published after. There’s probably a Tor piece in books whose creation and publication spans social or scientific shifts1. The author elects to imagine a better Minneapolis, one in which a cop’s reaction to a freezing teen is to hand them a warm coat voucher instead of, oh, dumping them in an isolated field. Meaningful police reform seems no more unlikely than faster-than-light travel, the development of psionic powers, or galaxy-ruling shadowy cabals, all of which are acceptable SFnal tropes. Although how police are to know if their firearms work if they are forbidden from randomly emptying them into passersby during wellness checks escapes me.
The trick in novels like this is to present the readers with characters who essential good nature successfully distracts from the dystopian elements. For the most part, the grand antagonist is kept off-stage, with only enough lines to establish that yes, their worldview is just as counter-productive as advertised. Focus is on established characters like Steph, and CheshireCat, with newcomer Nell added to the roster of characters with whom one might want to spend time.
Chaos is an entertaining sequel, one that stands on its own. Readers will no doubt enjoy it as much as they did the first. Unless they did not read the first, in which case they should.
1: Not to mention lovable robots, AIs, and other artificial persons.