Man, I wanted to love this book. Really, really wanted to love this book.
I hadn’t read any of Buckell’s stuff before, but I’d heard about it; it sounded like a great concept: space opera with a cast of characters with Caribbean heritage. I mean, dreadlocks and big guns and ships with awesome names like the Starfunk Ayatollah (the fucking STARFUNK AYTOLLAH! Seriously. It was great). I mean, really, it shouldn’t get much better than that.
I picked up Ragamuffin because of the lead character. It opens with Nashara, a kick-ass female heroine with no qualms about randomly killing people as necessary. She lives in a planetary society linked by wormhole technology and humans on most worlds are ruled over by the “Satrapy,” mind-controlling alien creatures who bend other races – including humans – to their will. Humans have, officially, been “emancipated,” but just like emancipation for slaves after the civil war, it’s a shallow, paper emancipation, and most human beings still live on worlds where they’re second-class, ghettoized citizens. All human-created technology is outlawed, and anybody ferrying it is killed.
Nashara just so happens to be from a world that’s created some human technology, a sort of virus she’s got in her head. When her world was cut off from the network of wormholes for their rebellion against the aliens, she and nine clones just like her were created, upgraded with tech and implanted with this computer virus, and sent out into the stars to get the tech to the people on another world. Nashara’s sisters, we learn, sacrificed themselves so she could get away when they were intercepted, and she’s been planet-hopping through the wormholes to get to the right planet. The planet’s the sort of home world, best I could tell, of the Ragamuffins, a group of interstellar pirates with aforementioned Caribbean heritage. Or, one of the sort of homeworlds. Or something. Yes, some of the history is confusing.
The first half of this book was pretty satisfying, especially the breakneck battle to get Nashara and some Ragamuffins she’d bumped into through a ship full of mind-controlled humans to save a girl with knowledge of the station and steal a starship and then flee with the starship from a group of folks doing the dirty work of the mind-controlling aliens who’ve decided that humans are tricky bastards and need to be wiped out of the wormhole system all together, not just cut off when they rebel.
The second half of the book jumps back to the planet Nashara’s trying to get to, the one that’s been cut off, a society full of Azteca (yes, the society is just what it sounds like) who also happen to have some older humans around of Ragamuffin descent who have actual tech in their heads from three hundred years before, when they were cut off from the wormhole. There’s negotiations going on between the two major countries, which are rudely interrupted when one of the wormholes suddenly re-opens and the alien race that had once warred with them returns.
Now, OK, I was having some issue with this book before, but when we abruptly shifted from mostly-Nashara’s POV and worldview to totally these other people in Azteca land’s worldview, it was like I was starting the whole book over again. I felt myself suffering from the old George R.R. Martin syndrome, ie “But I don’t *care* about any of these characters. Where are all the characters I was starting to sympathize with?”
It felt like two entirely different books. In longer books, you might be able to get away with this, but Ragamuffin is a quick, short book with short, sharp chapters. There were times when it felt like I was reading an outline for a series. I mean, it’s all about the attempted genocide of the human race. Sure, you can do that in a book, but it’s really hard to read a book with so little time in so many characters’ heads and still care about the outcome.
And when Nashara literally loses and leaves her body, effectively dies, in order to perpetuate copies of herself on other ships…. When your strong female lead who you’re already trying really hard not to be annoyed with for being a clone (Oh, those female hive minds!), ends up copy after copy after copy on other ships, becomes ships, becomes a virus, well… I have a strong aversion to the women-as-robots cliché. Sure, lots of people in this universe are technologically hopped up, but even the grizzled old meshed-out captain of the dying ship she first hitches a ride on breaks down and cries there toward the end, and he still has a physical body that can be killed and obliterated. I guess Nashara does too, sort of, there at the end, but it really wouldn’t matter because she’s mostly just projecting herself everywhere anyway. Her brain is somewhere else, not actually in her body. She’s sort of severed and cut in half, half a person. It bugged me. There’s something less human about someone who cannot die. I can’t explain it. Perhaps that’s another post.
And this brings up another issue, which is that the issue of women and emancipation isn’t discussed… at all. Women are assumed equal (really? When all humans are slaves, women are considered *equal* slaves, even though they have very lucrative wombs?), but again, looking at the place of women in oppressed societies, and having some background studying the role of women in a lot of guerilla movements, it’s not like those issues go away even among the rebels, they’re just subsumed by the larger cause. You don’t talk about sexism and the fact that your commander keeps demanding sex from you because you’re all “comrades” and you’re not supposed to rock the boat. It’s race emancipation first, and once that happens, women are going to get kicked back into the kitchen every time unless they fight like hell for it, because you might be “comrades” during the war, but after the war, you’re still just a woman.
Those issues weren’t in here much, and they don’t show up much in any book that assumes the “all women are equal, natch” philosophy (there’s one weird moment of sexism where somebody says something to the effect of “and you’re siding with that *woman*” like woman is a derogatory term, a curse word, less than man, just as we use it today. It was actually jarring because there’s really not much else in there. Nashara is regarded differently, once, because of her skin color, but not that I can recall, because of her gender).
I don’t think we actually know what equality *looks* like, so we brush the actual issues that would be involved in equality under the table and handwave it. There are a couple of references to Nashara’s womb – the fact that it was taken out in order to make room for all of her mechanical tech, and the fact that she doesn’t have one so can’t “settle down and make babies” (a statement made, tongue-in-cheek, by another character, but never expanded on). Does she even *want* to “make babies”? Do women even make babies anymore, or do they breed them in jars? I mean, they have clones. Are the cloned embryos just implanted into women (and, again, doesn’t this make women for valuable and therefore make people want to control them more)? Did they take Nashara’s womb out and save it in a jar to make it part of the breeding program? Does she even care? If this organ is actually significant (it does come up in conversation twice), what’s the significance? Is physically reproducing an important thing to mechanically enhanced people who’ll live, basically, forever?
I’m picking on the womb issues here, but it’s sort of representative, I think, of thinking through the way that a society’s social mores work and how technology effects and changes and informs those cultural mores.
In a break-neck pace book like this, you barely get enough time to sympathize or get to know any of the characters at all, let alone understand their cultures, which is a serious shame because, again, Caribbean-heritage society! I mean, how cool? But that’s not explored much in depth, either. They speak differently and you see bits of a burial ceremony, and they make decisions by consensus, but the actual way they live and breathe and work is sort of missing, here, because the plot gets in the way (!).
Stories about genocide and alien masters and gun-running and awesome ship battles are great, but in a book this size, I think the cast needed to be pared down and the chapters should have alternated between the Azteca world and Nashara’s stuff with more regularity right up front to help that sort of stop/start of getting-to-know you time. Dividing it in two made it feel like two books. You can get away with a late-start POV/world change in a longer book, but getting there and staying there for a hundred pages when the book is, what, 300 pages? Is a stretch.
I’ve heard older writers (usually midlist, but anyway) complain that the media and marketing machine is obsessed with “new” writers and “young” writers and gives them all of the attention while ignoring the midlisters’ work. I can understand some of the salivating expectation people have for newer writers, because new writers bring fresh voices and ideas with them. However, what we’re not so good at is stuff like plot, pacing, the nitty-gritty details of story, of how to write an emotional arc, how to flesh out a world or a character.
This is stuff that it takes a long time to learn, bashing your head against the desk everyday and writing book after book. You write a few books, you start to get it down, and it’s why I look at writers like Buckell and others who have all this great stuff, this great potential, these great ideas and unique voices and I think, “You know, after he writes about three more books, he could really kick some ass.”
However, the reason some more experienced writers end up getting the cold shoulder is because they *don’t* get better with each subsequent book. They go, “Hey, this book sold as is! I’ll keep writing books just like this!”
And then they’re pissed off because readers and the media machine don’t pay any attention to them.
These are the ones you run from like the plague.
But something tells me Buckell won’t be one of those plague-writers.
To sum up: not the technically best book in the world, but stay tuned for future stuff.