A few years ago, Naomi Kritzer won a Hugo Award for her short story “Cat Pictures, Please”. It was an adorable story that apparently inspired her to write an entire novel with a similar premise. This YA book is currently up for a Lodestar Award and (without having read all the finalists yet) I think it has a good chance of winning. What a heartwarming and exciting tale! I’m so glad enough people nominated this book because otherwise I would probably never have picked it up.
CATFISHING ON CATNET
by Naomi Kritzer
Published: Tor Teen, 2019
Ebook: 288 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
Opening line: My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures.
How much does the internet know about YOU?
Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.
When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.
Who doesn’t enjoy a book with a lovable AI character? I mean, Murderbot anyone? AIDAN from Illuminae? I was pretty much destined to like this book simply because it has an AI character, and not the HAL kind but one who just wants to help people and do good in the world. With the entire internet as its database, it’s pretty easy to find out what people want or need and to make that happen. It’s not as easy, however, not to freak them out completely when it does…
My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate: I don’t have a body, so I don’t have to sleep or eat. I am not sure whether I think faster than humans think, but reading is a very different experience for me than it is for humans. To put knowledge in their brains, humans have to pull it in through their eyes or ears, whereas I can just access any knowledge that’s stored online.
Admittedly, it is easy to overlook knowledge that I technically have possession of because I’m not thinking about it in the moment. Also, having to access to knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding things.
I do not entirely understand people.
In this book, we don’t only follow the sentient AI that has created and administrates CatNet but also Steph, a young girl who only knows life on the run. Her mother keeps whisking her away from every new town before she can make friends, before she can finish the semester, taking her to a new and different place where she has to be the new girl all over again. The reason for this is Steph’s creepy stalker father who burned their house down when Steph was little. Because her father is crafty and charming, it’s up to Steph and her mom to be careful not to leave a trace. After all, nobody knows what he could do if he ever found them.
This book was about many things, but most of all it’s about a rootless girl desperate for a friend. Not that Steph doesn’t have friends, but all her BFFs are on CatNet and she has never actually met them in meatspace. But this book also shows that these friendships are just as real as friends you may see face to face on a regular basis. What with Steph’s need for privacy, her online friends may not know what she looks like, but they are there the second anyone needs help!
The plot begins with Steph and her mom arriving in yet another small town and Steph starting school as “the new one” again. Apart from having to read The Scarlet Letter for the third time (because changing schools a lot will do that to you), Steph meets Rachel, a girl she really wants to be friends with. But is it worth striking up a friendship when she knows she’ll be gone in a few months? And anyway, mostly she still wants to get out of this town and into one with a better school as fast as possible. As history has shown, when Steph gets in trouble (even for silly, childish things), her mom packs them up and off they go. So she and her CatNet friends devise a plan to hack the school’s robot which is supposed to teach Sex Ed. And… things happen from there.
I know I say this in almost every review, but I really don’t want to tell you too much about the plot. There is a mystery about Steph’s past, it’s not clear whether her mom is telling her the truth about her stalker father or what exactly happened when Steph was little, and my beloved AI character has to make a decision on whether to out themselves to the people they most care about. Without spoiling anything, I can promise you plenty of action, even if the start of the book is rather quiet. Naomi Kritzer managed to build up tension over time and delivers a fantastic action-packed ending that had me on the edge of my seat!
What I found so great about this book (and there are many things) was how it shows that online friendships are just as real as meatspace friendships. Sure, an online discussion can’t replace a hug by a person you care about, but it is its own kind of support network. And when you have a character like Steph, who never gets to call a place her home, this network can make all the difference. The book also shows the darker aspects of our technological world. Leave the GPS on your phone on all the time? Well, if someone really wants to, they can find you. They can find out where you spend your Saturdays, who you meet with, where you shop, and where you go to school! The entire opening chapter of this book shows all the little ways we use technology that could help someone with enough criminal intent to make your life hell. But Steph’s mom is a programmer and savvy enough to have kept them safe for years.
The book also offers a sweet little romance that I found beautiful not just because I really cared about the characters but also because it’s not what the plot revolves around. If every YA book needs a romance, let more of them be like this! I also appreciated how diverse the cast is. Steph isn’t sure about her sexual preferences yet, but many other characters are queer, trans, gay, or undecided. And all of them love and respect each other. This has become somewhat of a trend in recent fiction but I still can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I read about a diverse group of friends who are simply there for each other, no matter what. If one of them wants to go by “they” instead of “she”, even only for a while, then why not respect that and let them figure out who they are? The guys on CatNet are like that, so it was really easy to like them. Their respect for each other doesn’t keep them from bantering and making silly jokes, however, which kept the story moving along nicely.
If you want to pick up a book with brilliant characters, a book about true friendships, but with a plot that still delivers twists along the way and gets super creepy at times (remember the stalker-dad), then please pick this up. I found it absolutely delightful and a really good book for the currenty times. The stakes may be high and a lot of scary things happen, but you can always rest assured that Steph’s CatNet friends will be there to catch her. I totally didn’t expect it, but this turned out to be a feelgood novel and one that I will proably rank pretty high up on my Lodestar ballot.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!