Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet is one of those really kind, sweet, human novels where everyone except the villain is doing their best. They make mistakes – “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” could be this book’s subtitle – but they’re all trying.
It’s fitting that this novel originated with a short story (“Cat Pictures Please”) that went viral, because CatNet is a love letter to the internet. Heroine Steph bounces around from place to place, changing identities each time, as she and her mother run from the abusive father Steph doesn’t really remember. The only constant in her life is CatNet. Her friends there have no idea who or where she is, so she can keep them through every move. And some of them have their own secrets: unbeknownst to everyone in the group, CheshireCat is an AI and the creator of CatNet. They’re a pretty benevolent AI, especially for someone who lives in the internet; they want to see lots of cat pictures and help make humans’ lives better. Thus CatNet, a social network where they can use their omniscience (they’re in your browser history and your email and your networked security system) to put everyone into chatrooms (called Clowders) with potential friends.
But for all their omniscience, CheshireCat is lonely. They’re running a social network and they’re in all of the Clowders, but no one knows who they really are, and they can’t share any personal details about their life. It’s this loneliness that leads them to connect so deeply with Steph. Both are living with an immense secret and can’t form real, honest relationships because of it. Steph’s narration never shies away from what living on the run has done to her ability to connect. She’s desperate for friends and afraid to make any, because she knows they’re just going to get ripped away from her… and yet, when she’s settling into yet another new school, she can’t help making some friends.
When CheshireCat tries to help out Steph and her new friends by sending them materials for a prank (via diverted shipping drone!), it backfires in ways none of them predicted, and we get a close look at the limitations of existing only in the internet – CheshireCat has some ability to affect the physical world, but only through networked devices, and they have to avoid drawing attention. Later in the book, in a grippingly tense scene, CheshireCat is forced to watch and listen to an incident of domestic violence, knowing that even if they could summon the cops, it would be over by the time help arrived. Omniscience is useless without both the ability to act on it and the judgement to know what actions you should be taking. At its core, this is a coming of age story for an adolescent AI, mirrored through the coming of age of an adolescent human girl. CheshireCat can find information in an instant, but that doesn’t translate to having a good sense of what to do when things get complicated – and given that being in the internet gives them a shocking amount of power, mistakes escalate quickly. By the end of the book, they’ve made their first step towards growing up, and so have their human friends.
There’s a lot of kindness here, and a lot of heart, and it’s absolutely worth reading.