Five Things That Inspired ‘Company Town’: Madeline Ashby

Image: Melanie R. Meadors
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Today’s Geek Speaks… Fiction! guest is author Madeline Ashby, whose book Company Town is making a huge splash.

Madeline Ashby, used with permission. Photo credit: Kayleigh McCollum Photography
Madeline Ashby, used with permission. Photo credit: Kayleigh McCollum Photography

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has written narrative scenarios and science fiction prototypes for organizations like Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod.

What do you get when you cross a hard-boiled noir thriller with a post-human science fiction novel with a Korean drama? You get my new novel, Company Town, which takes place on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. Here, I’ll let Charlie Jane Anders at io9 summarize from her io9 review:

Me, I just pitch the novel as “Veronica Mars versus the Terminator.”

1) Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter stories, and all adaptations thereof

I first read The Silence of the Lambs while at my uncle Mike’s beach cabin in Hansville, WA. It was a rainy weekend, the way it often is in the Pacific Northwest, but I doubt the prospect of sunshine would have made any difference. In fact, I probably would have resented it, because it would have meant being dragged outside to do something that wasn’t reading this book.

I read the novel a few years after Jonathan Demme’s film came out. (Fun fact: Silence won the Best Picture Oscar that year. It was in competition with an unusual contender: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Which is cute, since they’re basically the same story.) At the time, I was deemed too young to see the film, although I did catch part of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, itself an adaptation of Harris’ earlier novel The Red Dragon, on television that same year. I was really enjoying it, until my mother sent me to bed. Years later I picked The Silence of the Lambs from my aunt Karen’s shelf and I was halfway through before either of my parents noticed. I was probably eleven or twelve. By then, I’d already read a bunch of Stephen King — Harris just seemed like a lateral move from horror to thriller.

Joining the adventures of Clarice Starling felt for me the way that I imagine discovering Hermione Granger must have felt for for the girls who grew up with J.K. Rowling’s novels. In a lot of ways, Starling and Granger are the same character: an unrepentant overachiever. I’d read about smart or plucky girls, before, but Starling (and Scully, and Granger, and Mars, and every Shonda Rhimes character ever, and…) wanted to be the best. When Lecter offers Clarice “the thing she wants most,” he says “Advancement, of course.” Throughout all the novels, Hannibal is the only man unintimidated by Clarice’s ambition. Even her mentor, Jack Crawford, finds odd ways of putting her in her place, whereas Lecter encourages her to take on ever greater challenges. By the end it is she, not Buffalo Bill, who has transformed. Girl into woman, trainee into agent. Fiction aimed at women had always had these characters and stories, but Harris brought them into the mainstream. We wouldn’t have Scully, or Granger, or Mars, or Benson, or Keating, even Jessica Jones, without Clarice Starling.)

Companytown, by Madeline Ashby, image courtesy Tor Books
Company Town, by Madeline Ashby, image courtesy Tor Books

In the years since that overcast beach weekend, I’ve always had time for the Harris novels and adaptations. While re-writing Company Town for the third time, I watched Michael Mann’s Manhunter on my phone every night, to help me sleep. (I was always asleep by the time Graham “gets the old scent again” from Lecter.) I also immersed myself way down deep inside Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal television series. I used to watch Silence of the Lambs when I was feeling sick at heart; now I watch my favourite episodes of Hannibal. They’re shorter, and they’re queer-friendly, and they’re fucking gorgeous to look at, and they are lyrical and literary in a way that the foreshortening of a two-hour adaptation can never be. Fuller’s adaptation is a triumph of intertextuality: it is as much a comment on Harris’ novels as an adaptation of them. It is not only one of the greatest loves stories to have graced television screens, it is also one of the most loving pieces of fan fiction ever produced.

2) Avatar: The Last Airbender

Speaking of fanfic, I was heavily involved in the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom once upon a time. (Then everything changed, when the Fire Nation attacked.) Like a lot of fans, I was really fascinated by Prince Zuko’s story. I found him a lot more compelling than Aang, the titular character, who is a Messianic redeemer archetype who spends most of the story ignoring his responsibilities and getting a l lot of people hurt. Zuko, on the other hand, is all action and agency: even when he makes a mistake (and he makes plenty of them), he’s at least propelling the story along. In fact, the only lagging moments in the series’ whole plot are when Zuko decides to stay in one place. As either an antagonist or an ally, he’s the one who makes things happen. And he does this from a profound need to first prove himself, and then later to redeem himself.

If you look closely at Go Jung-hwa, the heroine of  Company Town, she’s a gender-flipped Prince Zuko. Whereas Zuko’s primary antagonist is his father the Fire Lord, the remote and abusive man who loves his younger sister Azula more, Hwa’s primary antagonist is her mother, Sung-hwa or “Sunny,” who wishes it were Hwa who died three years ago and not Hwa’s older brother. Both are marked by their parents in a certain way: Zuko’s father burned him during an Agni Kai three years before the story starts; Sunny forgoes all genetic testing and her daughter winds up with Sturge-Weber, a rare seizure disorder that has largely been wiped out by the time the novel starts, and its leaves her with a massive port wine stain that trickles from her left eye all the way down her left side. But whereas Zuko has a haughty royal pride, Hwa has a more hard-bitten sense of pride. Neither of them really loves themselves, but they each have a measure of self-respect, mostly derived from the ability to hurt people very badly, very quickly.

I also patterned Hwa’s relationship with Joel Lynch, the boy she’s hired to protect, on the later stages of Zuko’s relationship to Aang. Like Aang, Joel is a prodigy, and a good-natured sweet kid who occasionally gets in over his head. Hwa finds herself won over by Joel’s basic goodness, even as she finds it profoundly, even dangerously, naive.

3) 1st Shop of Coffee Prince

Coffee Prince is the first Korean drama I ever watched. It’s still one of my favourites. It’s about a working glass girl named Go Eun-chan who saves the “prince” of a major conglomerate from a mugger, and then demands a steady job in exchange, instead of a lump sum reward. The trick: the “prince” is about to open a coffee shop staffed entirely by very attractive men, a sort of twist on the maid café model. To get the job, Go Eun-chan has to convince her boss that she not only knows how to make a fine cortado, but that she’s a dude. Naturally, he falls for her — while thinking she’s a man. His ensuing interrogation of his sexuality, and subsequent grudging acceptance of his emerging queerness, is one of the best parts of the series. (Coincidentally, this is a premise that Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal takes with complete seriousness — what Coffee Prince plays for laughs, Hannibal understands as a part of human experience.)

4) Veronica Mars

I came to Veronica Mars late. It debuted in a year when I was living in a tiny town on Long Island where my boyfriend and I got only three channels, one of which was Univision. I didn’t start paying attention until the movie and its infamous Kickstarter. When I saw the numbers, and the groundswell of fandom even nine or ten years later, I realized I should go back and take a look.

And my goodness, am I glad I did. Veronica Mars is perfect television. (At least, its first season is.) It’s hard-bitten noir wherein the title character has a real reason to approach the world with pessimism and skepticism, rather than the inexplicable exhaustion that Dashiell Hammett infused his private dicks with. (Speaking of which, I’d be remiss not to mention his novel Red Harvest here; you can’t write a murder mystery set in a company town without mentioning Poisonville. I mean Personville.)

It’s also perfectly paced. Borrowing a structure from Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which I also love beyond reason, Veronica Mars lets its characters put together a much larger puzzle (who killed Lilly Kane?) as they solve smaller mysteries episode by episode. As Veronica builds her private eye skills, she gains the capability to resolve the big questions in her life: who raped her, who her father is, whether she can trust anyone ever again.

5) Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black novels

When I first started writing Company Town, I got Hwa’s voice all wrong. She sounded too much like me. That’s a big mistake, because Hwa is a bilingual Canadian who speaks Korean and Newfinese. Which is to say, she speaks a dialect of English that sounds very Irish but is specifically, recognizably Canadian. (I could go on and on about the politics of the English language in Canada. But I won’t. Because I like you.)

What helped me nail the tone of this novel was reading the first three of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black novels. If you haven’t read these books, do yourself a favour and find them right now. You’ll polish the first one off in a day, probably. Maybe two. But really they’re quick reads, because Chuck doesn’t know how to let a story drag. Period. The stories move about as fast as he writes, which is pretty fucking fast.

Reading these books helped me figure out the way Hwa should approach her story. She the point of view character, not the narrator per se, but her voice is still important to telling the story. So I had to infuse more of her anger and her vulnerability into the prose itself. I had to find simpler ways of explaining things, which is tough in a science fiction context. I hate exposition at the best of times; expositing things like genetic engineering and neural implants and virtual reality from the perspective of a high school dropout who’s had a few too many concussions is something else entirely. But I embraced the challenge, and I realized I almost preferred it this way — in my other novels I’d tried to limit my technical jargon as much as possible, just enough to show I’d done my homework, but this time I got to explain my SF concepts almost entirely in cursing. Which is to say, English.