Desert Isle Keeper
Catfishing on Catnet
Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer is a YA suspense tech thriller with strong romantic elements, and it’s electrically good at every single element.
Steph Turner and her mother have been on the run for almost as long as Steph can remember. Her father tried to kill them both via arson and has the tech-savvy to find them no matter where they go. Steph’s only source of continuity is a secret online forum called CatNet. Her friends forum, or Clowder, is populated by fellow teens – except one user, unbeknownst to them, is an AI (Artificial Intelligence) which has gained sentience. When Steph’s mom falls sick and Steph starts to unravel the story she’s been told about their past, she realizes what she thinks she knows may not be true. The truth may, in fact, be worse. Even the best efforts of her Clowder, her new best friend (or something more?) Rachel, and her AI ally may not be enough to keep her free, or even alive.
Much SF is set in worlds profoundly different from our own. This book feels much more reflective ofthe gradual encroachment of technology that we’re seeing in the present. Yes, there’s a robot sex-ed teacher, but a teaching aide is required to sit in the classroom while the robot delivers content. Some cars are self-driving but others are analogue. Steph even uses a flip phone, which is vintage in 2021.
It’s the similarity, though, that makes the thriller elements here so effective. What the AI is able to learn about Steph and her friends based on their online behavior is eminently learnable now. The data tracking that has forced Steph and her mother to lead frantically relocating lives is similarly plausible. I wouldn’t have been as unsettled by a story in which such stalking and tracking feels part of a reality completely unlike mine, but the idea that it could be almost doable in my own world? Disturbing as hell.
And yet this book isn’t just about tech. It has plenty of heart, as Steph struggles with loyalty to her mother in the face of new information, and her burgeoning attraction to Rachel. Their relationship develops slowly and realistically, given Steph’s secrets, the fact that neither is sure about the other’s orientation (although I will add that this is a romantic-elements story, not a central romance). In addition to the main characters, Steph’s Clowder is full of LGBTQ+ friends, so there’s lots of great normalizing representation here..
Catfishing is also occasionally sidesplittingly funny. Steph and her friends, fed up with the sex-ed robot repeatedly telling them to talk to their parents instead of providing actual education, hack the robot so their AI friend can lead an “accurate and sex-positive” Q and A class (the “land shark”, the AI informs the class, is a sex move that “exists only in the imagination of people who have penises but have never had a sexual partner.”) The AI’s reasoning on ethical dilemmas can be amusing in its childish literalness, but later, as the stakes rise, I was deeply grateful to feel that the AI would be an unwavering friend to Team Steph. The book is narrated in alternating first-person chapters by Steph and the AI, and it’s always easy to tell which one of them is narrating.
Catfishing on Catnet is a book which crosses multiple genres, and it’s a great find for readers of any of them. Don’t miss it.