In this worthy Nebula (Andre Norton Award) finalist by Naomi Kritzer we meet Steph, a girl who has spent most of her life on the run with her mother. According to her mom, Steph’s abusive father is extremely dangerous and, after spending a couple of years in jail for arson, he’s stalking them. Steph and her mom keep fleeing to small towns, trying to get lost, but eventually her mom gets nervous again and wants to move on. This means that Steph keeps starting at new schools and never has time to settle in and make friends. Her mom, anxious and paranoid, is not a good source of comfort or companionship.
Steph’s only source of stability is CatNet, a social media site where users are assigned by the site’s administrators to chat rooms called Clowders. At CatNet, Steph is known as LittleBat and she has a close relationship with the other teens in her Clowder. When Steph has to move to yet another school in the middle of her senior year of high school, her CatNet friends are there to support her emotionally. When she and her mom are again threatened by her scary father, her CatNet friends are willing to help… even if this means coming out from behind their computer screens.
Catfishing on CatNet (2019) is tense, exciting, and delightful all the way through. The plot is mysterious and Naomi Kritzer doles out the answers at just the right pace. Is Steph’s father really a bad guy? Is her mom crazy? Are her friends at CatNet real friends? What’s with the CatNet admin named CheshireCat who seems to know everything? Who is the unknown benefactor who keeps fixing things for Steph? And will Steph have to move again, just as she’s finally making a real-life friend at her new school?
The word “catfishing” refers to the practice of establishing a fake social media persona so that you can befriend, take advantage of, deceive, lure, or otherwise trick someone into believing you are someone you’re not. There are several examples of this in Catfishing on CatNet. Some of the characters are catfishing, which is a big part of the mystery and the tension. But other characters are catfishing IRL (in real life) and have found CatNet to be the safest place to be their true selves.
Steph is a hero who’s mostly easy to like. I connected with her immediately and when she later said she hated pep rallies, I knew we would have been friends. There were times, though, that I thought she was insensitive and I was sometimes angry at the way she treated her mother (probably because I am a mother). The other teens are also appealing, though some could be better developed (a little hard when they’re online, I suppose). Steph’s very small group of CatNet friends is sexually diverse, which might seem a little coincidental at first, but later we understand how this happened and it works well with the story’s themes.
One of the major themes in Catfishing on CatNet is online privacy and security. Besides entertaining us, Kritzer teaches us about passwords, hacking, location tracking, IP addresses, Virtual Private Networks, and some of the ethical considerations for artificial intelligence.
I enjoyed the audio edition of Catfishing on CatNet which was produced by Audible Studios and performed by Casey Turner and Corey Gagne. I recommend this version.
Using her 2015 Hugo award-winning short story “Cat Pictures Please” as a jumping-off point, Naomi Kritzer wrote Catfishing on CatNet (2019), an engaging near-future YA science fiction novel about a benevolent, sentient AI and teens and young adults who are having life troubles and have found their primary emotional support in an online chat group — which happens to be moderated by the AI. Steph is a sixteen-year-old girl who’s had an almost nomadic lifestyle for years: her mother moves them from town to town at the drop of a hat, rarely spending more than a few months in one place, and she doesn’t allow Steph to stay in contact with any friends once they’ve moved on. The reason, per her mom, is that they’re on the run from Steph’s father, who she says is violent and dangerous to them. Besides her mother, the only consistent relationships in Steph’s life are her group of online friends on “CatNet,” who are by and large all queer, nerdy and quirky. Steph’s mother, it need hardly be said, is unaware of Steph’s secret group of online friends, but they’re the one constant in her life that Steph refuses to give up.
Upon moving to their latest town in Wisconsin, though, Steph finds a new meatspace friend, Rachel, the first serious real-life friend she’s had in some time. With a great deal of help from a skilled hacker in the CatNet “clowder,” Steph and Rachel manage to reprogram a classroom sex ed robot to give “real answers” rather than the cautious “discuss that with your parents” messages that it has been giving to any touchy questions, like those about homosexuality or birth control. The results are both frank and hilarious, at least to most of the class and readers, but it sets off a domino effect, drawing attention from the media and potentially giving Steph’s location away to her long-absent father. Is he truly evil or has he been maligned? And what’s the deal with that one person who always seems to be awake and posting on CatNet, and knows more about Steph than she thinks they should?
The AI and Steph alternate in narrating the chapters of Catfishing on CatNet, with occasional chapters consisting of transcripts of online discussions of the CatNet clowder. Those interludes with the clowder were some of my favorite chapters. Their chats are realistic and frequently very funny, and you begin to recognize and become familiar with most of the key players in the clowder through their online voices.
The AI character (who I’ll refrain from naming since it isn’t disclosed for several chapters which clowder member they are) never quite felt like a true artificial intelligence to me; it’s just so very informally chatty, personable and human-sounding in its thought processes. It combines sophisticated cyber-surveillance, skilled hacking and using smart devices to intervene in others’ lives with a desire for true friendship and a naïve eagerness to help … along with an abiding fondness for cat pictures and videos. However, that’s clearly part of Kritzer’s point here: a self-aware artificial intelligence is as much a person as any human, and people of all types and genders are equally worthy of acceptance and respect.
Catfishing on CatNet is filled with charm and humor, which help to lighten the heaviness of the serious social issues and life problems that it addresses. Those problems include the difficulties of a transient life, troubles fitting in with society, abuse, and cyberstalking. There’s also a lot of fairly heavy messaging about candid sex education, queerness and sexual and gender identities, which may be either a bug or a feature depending on the reader’s own personal views.
Catfishing on CatNet won the 2020 Lodestar and Edgar Awards for Best Young Adult Book, and was nominated for other awards. It ends on an open note, setting up the sequel, Chaos on CatNet, which is due to be published in April 2021. I’m planning on reading it.