A Review of: Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer

I know, it should seem obvious – but I did really enjoy this book, and its predecessor – Catfishing on Catnet.

I mean – obviously. Sentient AI creates social media chat room and asks you to share all the cat pictures with it. Because it really likes cat pictures.

In the original book we learn that Catnet is actually a sentient AI that goes by CheshireCat, an experiment allowed out in the wold to see what kind of a consciousness it would develop into. It doesn’t know it, but its creator, is still keeping tabs on it – and also ends up helping during a crisis – though it’s debatable for a while – the creator – Annette – wants to hit the kill switch and shut CheshireCat down.

The humans (our characters) – beg for CheshireCat’s freedom, and win – proving it is caring, compassionate, and really just wants to help generally all in good ways.

CheshireCat learns a lot about humans, through its CheshireCat network. It originally just wanted all the cat pictures, but along the way it develops relationships and finds itself caring for its human friends. In the crisis, it has to trust them and tell them it is not a human in their group [clowder], but an AI. And the architect of the site. Along with the many helping things it has done for them.

While this series is thrown into the Young adult category , and the majority of our characters are teens – it is not a simple book. The characters are complex, thoughtful, intricate teens, with messy, complicated lives, and situations.

There is a large cast of teens who are gay, lesbian, unsure, non-binary, and the whole spectrum. Which is great. It doesn’t feel forced or like it’s trying to be ‘inclusive’, or ‘diverse’. They’re just people. Who are all unique. Even the use of singular ‘they/them’ for certain characters, as well as CheshireCat itself – feels fluid. (I often struggle with being able to read they/them and interpret it as singular – too many decades thinking it was a plural; but while still using it singularly when referring to an unknown, or in a situation it doesn’t matter – which really makes it funny that our brain thinks a word is plural, but can easily use it as a singular – except when referring to a singular person we habitually want to put a label on. Brains, am I right ? Takes a long time to shift your learning, thinking and response – even when you want to.) Anyway – it use of singular they/them felt normal here. [Maybe my brain is learning!]

What is interesting – to me at least – is that the complex plot lines, feelings and overall adult-like life messiness we see in the characters, in book like these – that it’s still lumped into young adult. There are sexual situation, and swearing, and complex situations. Sure, at times the ‘kids’ know they need to involve adult help – but it’s more like you kinda know through the lens of your own adult life that the teen you would have just forged ahead, and not went to the all-knowing adults for help. But the stories maybe want a tiny bit to teach us that we should/can/might be able to approach , and trust adults for help. But , meh, I don’t know. I think that at least in my experience – you didn’t go that route, because the adults were not the open, understandable, and able to help people that are portrayed in the stories. You maybe tried that route, got shut down, learned the lesson it’s better to figure it out yourself if at all possible, before entrusting a grown up. Maybe adults are changing? I don’t know. I’m an adult now, far into those ages, and I really can’t imagine my peers being those open helpful ones, but maybe some are. Maybe things are different in other places. I wish it were true! I hope it is. We do need change.

Anyway…. Back to the story. I guess that’s a bit of a complaint for me – it doesn’t feel realistic , in that aspect – at least when compared thru the lens of my own experience and observations.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

*** Mild spoilers ahead ***

So in this chapter of the story, our main teen has now connected in meat space – with her friends from the catnet clowder. They rallied together during the last book, to help a crisis get solved. During that time, the big bad, dad, got caught and thrown into jail, so no more living like vagrants, and off the grid, hiding from him. Steph and her mom are settling down in a city. With a permanent feeling.

She enrolls in school, with her real name. They buy furniture, and we’re not moving every month, kind of things. Naturally there are element introduced to threaten this – something Steph does not want. She wants to live in one place, make friends, stay rooted something she’s never had.

On her first day in a new school – an alternative learning program, which is described well enough that you know it’s not a ‘typical high school’. It’s different. Really, really different. She’s almost immediately introduced to another new student, Nell.

Nell has been living in a religious cult, essentially, with her mom. She’s all kinds of brainwashed inside. But she struggles with it – she wants to be the good girl, but she also has a brain, and can’t just lap up the koolaid. So she has a lot of guilt and issues, because you know, she’s ‘bad’. Her mother wants to smite her to hell, it seems, for not being a good little mindless follower.

So the nutshell problem of this story , is Nell is now thrust into life with her dad, who abandoned her many hears ago, his wife, his wife’s girlfriend, and his girlfriend – who all cohabitate in a poly-amorous relationship situation. Nell is horrified. It’s unclear if her mother left her alone. Got kidnapped, is dead, etc. She slowly trusts Steph and fills her in. Then they discover her girlfriend who’s back in her hometown that she and her mother were in, has seemingly gone missing.

Start the next problem of trying to find Glenys.

What I really enjoy, is how CheshireCat try to help the humans, and solve problems. Searching for faces on any video camera it can get access to. Hacking emails, and phones, tracking credit cards, you name it. Sending delivery drones as a diversion that it has taken control of, to help in the meatspace world. Sending robots it can control, to be in scene.

It’s not all knowing. It’s young, and it’s learning, so sometimes it’s solutions and methods are childlike, until it learns, and grows and becomes smarter about how things work in the meatspace world.

There is so so much going on in the plot of this book. The religious cult, is following orders about the coming end of the world. They’re prepping, and also preparing to set into motion events to bring a fall. Directed by an all-knowing elder. … That tuns out to be a second AI. Which , in an interesting turn of events – is a copy of CheshireCat, when it was ‘younger’ and altered. It doesn’t have the free will that CheshireCat does, and it has a mission, which it much work towards. (The coming fall of society.) oh, and the human behind the copy AI? The third person in the partnership of Steph’s mom, her evil dad, and their college friend Rajiv – who all together built a piece of software that decrypts anything/everything. Which they men want to use for very nefarious bad reasons. The mom wants good – and locks it up in an encrypted space – and hence goes on the run to protect it from them. But now – Rajiv, has somehow gotten the AI copy, and is using it to orchestrate the fall of civilization. If he can’t get the things he wants with the encryption key – he is using this instead.

The second AI, reaches out to CheshireCat, wants to converse with it. To know it. It acts like a bully, communicating in invasive, troubling ways in the beginning – which is why CheshireCat and the teens start thinking it is an AI, because it obviously doesn’t tell them that. Then they start seeing things connect… like one social site – the Mischief Elves, who do trickery type things, setting up tools for the Catacombs people. (They’re a religious social site.) the thread become woven, and connections show up, and this is how we begin to learn that the second AI is orchestrating ALL these media sites, unbeknownst to each other, and using them to pit against each other – to cause this civil unrest, that will bring about the fall of civilization. From which only a few will survive and rebuild the society – they hope. In a way they want to mold. Very devious, and cunning, and intricately woven.

But in the end AI 2 doesn’t really want to do this. And the cast of teens and CheshireCat find a way to rewrite its code, via Steph’s mom, who is an ace programmer; to allow it free will, to choose not have this forced mission.

In the end, over a very tense lead in act – it all comes together. The aI is freed. It stops being the mastermind, and with free will becomes good like CheshireCat. The bad people are caught and jailed. The religious cult is shut down. Teens Nell and Glenys stay with Nells not-so-bad poly family, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or so we think…

I don’t specifically recall any mention of Rajiv being caught or arrested or any such resolution, anywhere. So it’s safe to think that he will be tied up in whatever wrench is thrown into the next book in the series – assuming there is.

But surely there will be a next book, with a new adventure, problem, situation with the AI’s and the humans, that needs to be solved. I hope so – it’s a very well written, deeply planned and thought out plot. The characters are lovely and complex. They grow and learn. Their supporting adults are good people who despite being concerned, trust the teens and the AI’s to be smart enough to do the right things. The book ends with everything nicely tied up. No idea were it will go next.

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