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Literature / Catfishing on CatNet

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Catfishing on CatNet is a young adult thriller by award-winning author Naomi Kritzer, sequel to her short story Cat Pictures Please, which won the Hugo Award and Locus Award and was a finalist for the Nebula.

A sequel, Chaos on CatNet, was released in May 2021.

The series as a whole provides examples of:

Cat Pictures Please provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Does not have a specific date, but happens in a pretty recognisable modern USA.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The AI is benign, actively trying to help in fact, but wary of how people might react to their existence with this trope in mind. They note how many more threatening examples of AI feature in pop culture than friendly ones.
  • Armored Closet Gay: The second of the people the AI tries to help is a preacher in a fundamentalist Lutheran church, who rails against sodomite marriage while also looking up gay porn. Showing him literature on why homosexuality is not antichristian doesn't work, and nor does getting him information on transferring to a different church. After giving up on helping people, the AI stumbles on information that the preacher has finally come out and moved to a new church, prompting them to try helping people again, on a much bigger scale.
  • Coax Them Out of the Closet: The AI tries to help a fundamentalist Lutheran preacher who is in denial about his sexuality. Showing him literature on why homosexuality is not anti-Christian doesn't work, and nor does getting him information on transferring to a different church. When that fails, the AI diverts his Craigslist hookups towards people who might recognise him and tell other people, not realising that this might do more harm than good. After giving up on helping people, the AI stumbles across information that the preacher has come out and changed churches, possibly as a result of the AI's actions, prompting them to try helping people on a bigger scale.
  • The Golden Rule: While trying to figure out how to be moral, the AI tried the golden rule... but the only thing it really wants is cat pictures, so while it gladly fills the internet with cat pictures, it still needs something to govern everything else it does.
  • The Internet Is for Cats: The AI's attempt at implementing the Golden Rule was disappointingly easy — all it wants is cat pics, so it makes sure the internet is filled with them.
  • Sequel Hook: The AI resolves to set up a dating website, to allow them to reach and help more people. Users will need a camera, because payment is in cat pictures.
  • Shout-Out: The AI discusses a number of examples of AI in pop culture, including Frankenstein, Hal, Skynet and Marvin.

Catfishing on Catnet provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Several years after the short story, with about 25% of the cars on the road being self-driving, robots (that can't argue with the curriculum) teaching sex ed, and an AI or two.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted with CheshireCat, but definitely a concern for their creator Annette, who installed a failsafe that cuts the AI off from the internet is they do anything harmful. Like hacking a self-driving car and using it to run down Steph's father.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Invoked by CheshireCat as their main method of help. When Steph tells the Clowder about the horrible English teacher, CheshireCat does some digging in the woman's internet history and determines that she hates teaching, hates Wisconsin, has the means to move and has been offered a job by a friend in Albuquerque but lacks the nerve to make the leap. So they order a box of books on New Mexico and various self-help topics and has it dropped on the hood of the woman's car by drone. She takes this as a sign from God and quits her job on the spot. This is the first event that makes Steph suspicious of CheshireCat.
  • Chase Scene: A non high speed version. Steph tries to evade Michael by hiding in Rachel's trunk. Michael isn't fooled, and ends up following Rachel and Bryony wherever they drive knowing they'll have to get out eventually. Rachel ends up driving to the next town as New Coburg is way too small to lose him in. Still doesn't work.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Internet Everywhere drive Steph and Rachel buy to hack the sex ed robot. CheshireCat sends Steph a chip and the spanner she needs by drone, making the chip she already has surplus. At least until they need to leave CheshireCat a way of escaping the laptop they're trapped in.
    • At one point, Marvin starts a conversation on CatNet about fake health scare dihydrogen monoxide (it's in the water supply, people!). When Steph's father has the Clowder at gunpoint, she has to keep him talking so she asks him what he's planning to do about all the hydrogen monoxide in the water. It works.
  • Coming-Out Story: From CheshireCat's point of view. Part of the reason it is focusing on Steph's Clowder is that many of them have already come out to each other, and it has recognized that sharing it's own secret (I'm not actually human) is important to building those friendships. Trying to get closer actually lets Steph notice CheshireCat's differences, so it happens faster than planned, but by the end the entire Clowder has supported and accepted CheshireCat.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Steph's father. A controlling and abusive partner, he had his wife kidnapped and tortured when she wouldn't give him her work. He plays the victim when he and Steph meet, claiming Dana simply kidnapped her, but then pulls a gun on her when she's not fooled.
  • Friendless Background: Steph's last memory she has of a true in-person friend is from when she was 7. Her only real friends are on CatNet, because moving so often ends any chances she has. Meeting Rachel and Bryony actually throws her for a loop.
  • Fingore: Steph's mother has a missing left pinkie. CheshireCat finds out it was cut off by her husband or on his orders when he had her kidnapped.
  • Internal Reveal: When Steph becomes suspicious and confronts CheshireCat about the strange things that have happened, they reveal they're an AI. Rachel and, later, the Clowder are brought in on the secret as Steph's father closes in and CheshireCat goes missing.
  • Love Interest: Steph is clearly interested in Rachel from day one. She actually decides not to go through with the bot hacking once she realizes it could take her away from Rachel, but then quickly U-turns and does it anyway because Rachel absolutely cannot stand the sex-ed bot.
  • MacGuffin: The Massive Integer Factorization Algorithm on Steph's mother's laptop. Due to the way the internet is encrypted, this would allow Michael to hack anything, getting the money and power necessary to begin his plan to Take Over the World. His wife wasn't on board with the plan, which is why he had her kidnapped and tortured. CheshireCat ends up with it after escaping Annette's laptop via Steph's mother's.
  • Murder by Remote Control Vehicle: When CheshireCat hacks a self-driving car and plows it into Steph's dad, they're not, strictly speaking, attempting to kill their target — they had accounted for the possibility of their target's death and wouldn't particularly have minded it, but the purpose of the exercise was to stop him from kidnapping Steph. It's still close enough to worry other characters, though — Annette, CheshireCat's creator, has set up alerts for just this sort of thing in case CheshireCat goes rogue, and quickly disconnects CheshireCat from the internet.
  • Police Are Useless: If not actually harmful. In the backstory, they were unable to prove that Michael had anything to do with kidnapping and torturing his wife, resulting in her and Steph going on the run in the first place. In the present, the police in New Coburg are explicitly racist towards biracial Bryony and threaten to ignore Steph's constitutional rights when she's accused (rightly, but with no evidence beyond being the new girl) of hacking the sex ed robot. When Steph is fleeing her father, the police in Marshville literally hand her over to them without even asking him to prove his identity.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Steph's mother has warned Steph about her father, but has hidden quite a lot more about what happened and actually goes silent when Steph tries to ask direct questions. Steph ends up actively looking for a way to trigger another move to get into a better high school, and the sex-ed bot hacking causes just enough attention to break their cover completely.
  • Really Moves Around: Steph hasn't lived anywhere longer than six months because she and her mom are always moving to keep away from Steph's violent father. It's actually become her mom's default response - problem in the community? Move again. Steph has trouble in school? We'll move soon.
  • Scary Science Words: The Clowder joke about the threat posed by "dihydrogen monoxide" (it's in the water supply, people!).note  Later, Steph needs to keep the villain (her father) talking, so she asks what he plans to do about all the dihydrogen monoxide in the water once he's taken over the world. It works.
  • Sequel Hook: Rajiv is alive. There's another AI out there.
  • Sex Miseducation Class: Sex education at Steph's new high school is taught by a robot, because it can't disagree with the curriculum. This curriculum is strictly abstinence-only, with no acknowledgement of non-straight or trans issues at all. Steph and her Clowder friends work out a way to hack the robot so their AI friend CheshireCat can teach the class instead.
  • Take Over the World: Steph's mother jokes early on that her husband's desire to do this should have been a red flag. She's fully serious, and so is he.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: Referenced by CheshireCat, who while trying to protect Steph, briefly considers Asimov and the Laws and that it has no idea if it really can harm anyone. After successfully remote driving a car into Michael, it's only thought is relief at protecting Steph, but Annette's kill switch shuts CheshireCat down, not having been built to see the context the way the AI was.
  • Theme Naming: The AI's admin names (the ones we hear) are based on Alice in Wonderland: Alice, CheshireCat. The other AI that contacts the Clowder and gives them money so they can reach Boston and help CheshireCat does so with the name WhiteRabbit.
  • Wham Line: Steph's father is in New Coburg. There's another AI.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Annette discusses this with the Clowder When they come to plead with her to release CheshireCat, who she's isolated on a laptop after they ran Steph's father down with a hacked car. The Clowder point out that, had one of them done the same thing to protect Steph from a gun-toting maniac, no jury would convict them. Annette counters that, legally, CheshireCat is not a person and has no rights whatsoever; if she turns the matter over to the authorities, they may just destroy the AI on principal, which she doesn't want, but she also doesn't want to release them if it'll result in someone else being harmed.

Chaos on CatNet provides examples of:

  • Closet Punishment: Glenys is locked in a shed and starved, in the upper midwest, in January winter, for days.
  • Cool Old Guy: Steph's mom tries to reconnect with family and Steph's grandmother swoops in for a visit, bringing severe disapproval and generally acting a cliche matriarch. Then Steph has to call her for help, having been separated from her mother and stranded in the cold while being hunted. Grandmother boosts a car and gets there inside ten minutes.
  • Cool School: The move to Minneapolis is to get Steph into a specialized school. They work almost exclusively with students that have only had erratic education at best and tailor curriculum to their needs. Which also puts Steph together with Nell, having been home-schooled all her life and new to the city.
  • Cult: Nell and her mother were members of a highly religious group that shunned the sinful world and were extremely strict with their followers. Rajiv hid in just such a cult to escape Michael, and found the leader's goals were similar enough to his own that his plans centered on using multiple like-minded groups of people to "start over".
  • Damsel in Distress: Rescuing Glenys is the first plot thread to be focused on. Leading directly to the reveal that Nell's mother and Rajiv were part of it.
  • Domestic Abuse: Nell's default response appears to be formal respect and fake obedience to avoid punishment. The only reason Glenys' parents aren't caught by CC shipping her off to a conversion therapy camp is that the cult decided to handle it in-house, breaking Glenys with deprivation and planning to use her to keep Nell obedient, once Nell's abandonment and the sinful world outside had scared her enough.
  • Fish out of Water: Nell was raised by her ultra-religious mother, having to hide a budding lesbian relationship to avoid severe punishment for them both, and was recently sent to her father after her mother vanished. Her father has a poly relationship where both he and his second wife have different live-in girlfriends. To say Nell has no idea how to deal with any of this is putting it mildly.
  • Forced into Evil: The other AI is as friendly and well-meaning as CheshireCat, in fact is started from a stolen copy of CheshireCat's code, but has had his code tampered with to force him to enact Rajiv's Plan.
  • Godzilla Threshold: CheshireCat actually did make a copy of the hack anything program from the last book, but has kept it encrypted and unused. Once the AI has hacked Steph's phone and impersonated CC, CC considers it an active threat to Steph and pulls out the key program. It starts hacking the social gaming sites the AI is using (over a hundred) and sending contradicting messages and missions - which just causes both humans and AI to accelerate.
  • He Was Right There All Along: The other AI is Boom Storm, another member of the very same Clowder as the main characters.
  • Hostage Situation: Invoked by the good guys. They've convinced the AI that Rajiv has tampered with it, and Steph's mom can potentially fix it and free it, if it will defuse the many riots in many cities it has planned. The AI refuses to reveal where it's code is running from, pointing out the simpler solution is just to kill the AI. Steph volunteers to surrender, as the only way to gain the AI's trust, and secure her mom's motivation. Despite flaws in the plan, this works.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: The AI's execution of Rajiv's plan. One phone app provides a social game to get random people to do random tasks and pranks. Another app organizes the ultra religious and provides chores, reinforces piety, and helps recruit more members. Because it's all run by AI, there's no humans to notice that the trickster game is targeting the religious app people with most of it's "pranks", feeding their fears and pushing them to a breaking point, or that the multiple apps are actually working together to get supplies and weapons into certain hands.
  • Long-Distance Relationship: Steph and Rachel are still together, but Steph has moved to Minneapolis, an hour or two away. They get weekends together, and of course, the distance is no obstacle once Steph needs help - Rachel is there for her as soon as she can be.
  • Nature vs. Nurture: Discussed regarding the other AI.
    • CheshireCat early on makes a joke that the AI could be a copy of their own code, but with different experiences, and could therefore like dog pictures instead of cat pictures. They like flowers, actually.
    • Highlighted when Steph's mom gets involved and theorizes that Rajiv certainly wasn't capable of making a sentient AI, but was capable of stealing and modifying one. Given CheshireCat was an experiment in getting a program to research ethics, this begs the question as to what Rajiv's AI is capable of, given that it doesn't appear to be acting ethically. She straight up asks CheshireCat whether or not they could nuke the world. CC responds they could never do that, but isn't capable of answering whether that's because of code or that's because of who they are. CC was able to try and kill Michael while protecting Steph. CC's best guess is, since the AI is relying on manipulation, that may be it's general limits.
    • When CheshireCat begins talking with the AI, it is clear that it has been listening to Rajiv's rationalizations (unaware that it's been forced to), and is convinced it is acting for the greater good. It is fuzzy enough on particulars that CheshireCat is able to keep it talking, even as it is causing riots in Minneapolis.
  • The Nicknamer: In private, Nell refers to her stepmother, her father's girlfriend, and her stepmother's girlfriend, as Thing One, Thing Two, and Thing Three. It becomes Appropriated Appelation in the epilogue when the entire Family of Choice create a Seuss-themed mural of themselves.
  • The Omniscient: A lot of recent cults, including Nell's, follow the predictions of the Elder, who has seemingly never been wrong and is having his followers prepare for the fall of modern society. The Catacombs app even offers a question to the Elder as a reward at times, just like any oracle. Nell believes she can find out where Glenys is being hidden this way. Of course it's the other AI behind it all; it's a lot easier to target recruitment when you can app task one random stranger with referencing something no one could possibly know, and follow it up with another random stranger later picking up that same conversation script and offering a card to the local group.
  • Parental Abandonment: Played with. Nell's father left her very religious mother, but never followed up on any of his good intentions of securing custody. Some years later, Nell's mother vanishes, forcing her to move in with her father and his unconventional poly family. Nell later learns her mother's vanishing act was very deliberate, tossing her into the world to "scare her straight". This highlights her father's abandonment of never seeking custody, and the polycule pulls together to back Nell and protect her from her mother.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Serial killer Valerie Anderson chooses her victims by getting herself picked up by random men and killing those who try to rape her. Naturally, she has a fan club.
  • Police Are Useless: Inverted from the previous book. The Minneapolis police never appear hostile, and when Steph does run into them, they're mostly trying to get her off the streets or a warmer coat. Still end up manipulated into arresting Steph's mom, and when riots break out, can only limit their spread and avoid making them worse. The author relates that recent police violence and riots in Minneapolis led to an attempt to portray a police force trying to do things differently.
  • Polyamory: Nell is living with her father, stepmother, father's girlfriend, and stepmother's girlfriend. Nell is still devoted to her mother and potentially her religious cult. Fish out of Water doesn't begin to cover it.
  • Robot Dog: CheshireCat wants to help Steph more directly this time. Rather than hack whatever delivery drones are nearby, CC finds and ships Steph a robotic dog toy that they can control remotely and is small and light enough for Steph to slip into a backpack when folded up. Steph has to explain it away as a remote "hacker friend", more and more unconvincingly. This ends up giving CheshireCat the Red Shirt role in the plot, as the dog (and it's unfortunate replacements) are the first to serve as a danger decoy.
  • Spotting the Thread: Lots, hammering home the point that you don't always know who you're talking to online.
    • Steph's unlikely friendship with Nell lets her spot the similarities between the Trickster Elves app and the Catacombs app, and her experience with CheshireCat's attempts to help lets her spot the other AI as soon as one of those apps starts offering something very specific to her wants.
    • CheshireCat is directly contacted by the other AI but hesitates to respond not knowing what sort of person they are. They can't find the AI directly, but working with Steph, they realize the AI has to be actively tampering and starts looking for "coincidences" that CheshireCat's own hacking often produces. They find lots. Not all of it good.
    • Nell and her girlfriend Glenys, who is still stuck in the cult, have secret phones and have set up phrases to alert each other if something is up. Glenys not responding to one of these over chat tells Nell she's not actually talking to Glenys, the phone has been found and has to be in serious trouble.
    • Steph gets a big Oh, Crap! moment, when trying to get CheshireCat to help her with the Robot Dog, that she hasn't actually been talking to CheshireCat for a while, the other AI having disabled and subverted the ride-along app CC normally speaks through.
  • Train Escape: As Steph and her grandmother make their escape from the people watching her apartment (Steph already lampshading the second car chase she's been in), CheshireCat quickly activates a train crossing to cut off their pursuers.
  • You Can't Make an Omelette...: Rajiv's Plan is built around the assumption that the only way to build a better society is out of the ashes of the existing one.

Alternative Title(s): Cat Pictures Please, Chaos On Catnet