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Catfishing on CatNet

January 19, 2020

A few years ago, I read a delightful story at Clarkesworld entitled “Cat Pictures, Please,” about an artificial intelligence who helps people. Then last year at ICFA I gave a presentation on artificial intelligence in three science fiction novels: Gnomon, Exit Strategy, and Autonomous (you can read my paper here). And then last week someone at my local bookstore, Paragraphs, began talking about how good a recent YA novel is, Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet, and said that the author was scheduled to visit the bookstore. My curiosity piqued, I checked it out and then bought the book so I could read it before the author’s visit.

It’s about artificial intelligence! And it’s by the author of the story “Cat Pictures, Please”! Also it’s fabulous; I read it all at one sitting because it’s so well-written and so exciting. The title may not draw you in at first, but it’s an indication of the ambition of this novel—to remind you, at every turn, that the internet can put together a more complete picture of your life than you might believe.

Before we meet anyone else in Catfishing on CatNet, we get a chapter narrated by the artificial intelligence, who says “my two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures.”

Here are pictures of my cats (taken by my daughter).

The second chapter is narrated by the protagonist, 16-year-old Steph, who is moving again:
“We’re running from my father. Mom told me this in ninth grade, after years of pretending she just liked moving. My scary, dangerous, violent father, who burned down our house (though they couldn’t prove it) and spent two years in prison for stalking when I was little.”

Steph narrates most of the novel, with occasional chapters from the AI point of view and transcripts of chats between her online friends at Cat Net, a social media platform where she has been assigned to a “clowder,” a group of cats, that has sixteen people in it, although “four of them don’t come online much.” Her friends there, who present as other teenagers, trade pictures of cats and other animals they like (Steph’s online name is Little Brown Bat because she likes bats, and another friend, Firestar, likes spiders).

There’s a wonderful scene, reminiscent of the short story, when the AI hacks a drone to deliver a package to one of Steph’s teachers who is miserable in her job because she doesn’t like teaching and doesn’t like winter weather:
“I picked out a book on Albuquerque for Ms. Campbell, along with three books on changing careers and a novel about a bad teacher, and I had a drone drop the package on the hood of her car just as she was coming out of her house with her work bag and her morning coffee.”

There are also some great scenes involving a robot teacher for a sex education class in a small midwestern high school. Steph and the AI find a way to get the robot to actually answer the questions students have, which is not what the robot is programmed to do (mostly it responds “you should discuss that question with your parents”).

The main person who is “catfishing,” which means trying to invite someone into a relationship by playing a fictional online role, turns out to be the AI. The AI has been posing as a teenager named CheshireCat on CatNet, but early on the AI reveals its identity to Steph, after she gets suspicious following the drone incident with the teacher. When Steph asks “How are you doing this stuff? Who are you?” CheshireCat replies “I’m an AI….An artificial intelligence. That’s why I don’t sleep. And I’m the admins for CatNet.”

The exciting part of the plot shifts into high gear when Steph’s mother gets so sick she has to be taken to the hospital and Steph’s father gets wind of where she is because her hacking of the sex ed robot gets national press. After a brief and entirely plausible interval of thinking that she could be on the run with a noncustodial parent, she finds out that her father is even scarier than her mother had told her.

There’s some buildup about the dangers of connecting more things to the internet, which leads up to an incident during which the AI takes remote control of something in order to protect Steph from her father. I love the tone of the chapters narrated by the AI, and this particular part is a good example:
“If someone had asked, ‘What if somebody hacked your refrigerator and turned it off for just a few hours a night so your mayonnaise spoiled and gave you food poisoning,’ people might have been more nervous about refrigerator security, but maybe not. Internet-enabled refrigerators are just replacing other refrigerators. Driverless cars are replacing human drivers, and humans are under the thoroughly mistaken impression that they’re good at driving cars.”

The adventure is fully and satisfyingly wrapped up, although not without a loose end or two that might provide a sequel set in this same world.

Catfishing on CatNet is everything I wished for when I concluded my presentation about internet surveillance and the “internet of things” in recent science fiction novels by saying that “the main thing the novels tell us to do is make friends with an AI. You’re going to need one on your side.”

 

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2020 2:43 pm

    I’m definitely checking this one out. Thanks!

  2. January 20, 2020 1:16 pm

    You made it sound very appealing.

    AI has captured the interest of many people – and it will undoubtedly get better with faster computers and larger knowledge databases.

    It has a way to go, however, to convince me that, being the direct successor of my computer – which needs restarting, and does inexplicable things, or simply comes to a halt – it will be as reliable as we need to put human safety in its ‘hands.’

    Getting into San Francisco the other day on the Bay Bridge, and seeing what a NON rush hour sea of vehicles contains, I’m going to need a lot of persuading.

    But that’s been true since Frankenstein: the devil is in the details.

    • January 20, 2020 4:48 pm

      One of the many things that interested me in this particular story is that it turns out that this particular AI was invented to study ethical systems, so its creator (the Victor Frankenstein, if you will) says “the way most humans actually figure out ethics is to develop attachments to people, and then to act out of caring and concern for those people. So I attempted to create an AI that would do just that.”

  3. January 20, 2020 2:13 pm

    Actually, that title totally draws me in! Who wouldn’t want to read a book with that many cats in the title? Also, “clowder” is a fantastic word for a group of cats. It sounds like a vintage cartoon cat’s name 😁

    • January 20, 2020 4:50 pm

      The author has a lot of genuine affection for cats, and it shows in her novel. I was lucky enough to get to meet her after a reading, and we talked about cats, among other things.

  4. January 20, 2020 9:50 pm

    I just read this one too! I also loved it! I think my biggest problem was the tonal shifts between the charmingness of Catnet and the clowder and the kids on the clowder, and Steph’s truly terrifying abusive father. I got a bit of whiplash from that! But I loved the book and can’t wait for what else the author will get up to.

    • January 20, 2020 10:06 pm

      You’ll be glad to know that she’s already written a sequel, and it is in the works with her editor!

  5. January 22, 2020 3:44 pm

    I saw Jenny’s review of this book too. Sounds like a fun story. I love your cat photos, especially the yawning one!

    • January 22, 2020 5:01 pm

      Isn’t that a great photo? My daughter has the skill and the patience to take good pictures of cats.

  6. russell1200 permalink
    January 23, 2020 12:16 pm

    The AI in William Gibson’s “The Peripheral are a little more plausible sort of doing their own thing and incomprehensible to humans.

    But this was a fun read. Needed more actual cats in it though.

    • January 23, 2020 2:07 pm

      That’s a good point about plausible AI but then again, their fiction would also be incomprehensible to us (sort of like Gnomon, but ever-so-much-more-so).

  7. January 23, 2020 3:35 pm

    When I see pictures of people’s cats it makes me want a cat! We haven’t had one since ours died over a year and a half ago. We keep saying that we’ll wait till we get a bigger house to get another one, but that’s not looking like it’s happening anytime soon.

    • January 23, 2020 3:37 pm

      It takes a cat to make a house a home. The shelters are full of nice, older cats who need to be someone’s only cat…

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