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Catfishing on CatNet    by Naomi Kritzer order for
Catfishing on CatNet
by Naomi Kritzer
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2019 (2019)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet, Steph's mom keeps them always on the move, on the run from a dangerous, abusive husband. They never stay anywhere long enough for Steph to make friends. Her only solace is an online community of oddballs (CatNet), whose administrator, CheshireCat (unbeknownst to Steph and the others) happens to be an artificial intelligence. CheshireCat is just as lonely as Steph is.

Their latest move is to New Coburg, Wisconsin, where Steph actually makes an immediate friend in high school, a talented artist named Rachel. Steph likes to take photos to share with her online group, especially of spiders and their webs. A cat moves in with her, and Steph keeps it hidden in her bedroom, knowing her mom would not approve. Life is finally looking up.

Then odd things start happening. Steph complains about her English teacher on CatNet. The English teacher resigns. She complains about the bot that teaches sex ed, and a delivery drone drops a tool she needs to hack the bot at her feet. CheshireCat outs themself as an AI to Steph, and continues to help her in entertaining ways. But things soon turn ugly, after Steph's mum becomes very ill and is hospitalized.

Steph's Dad shows up and stalks her. She only escapes with CheshireCat's help and the latter's strong action to help their friend has dire consequences for the AI. Fortunately, Steph's friends (in and out of meatspace) gather round to help both of them in a stunning conclusion to this well developed story. Together, they save the day, and maybe the world.

I haven't enjoyed an AI-centered story this much since I read Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Though the contexts are quite different (a rebellious Mars in Heinlein's novel and high school angst here) they both explore first contact between human and AI, as well as the kind of power an AI could wield, the ethical issues surrounding such actions - and the cost of doing so. Don't miss this one, first in a most promising new series!

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