Book Review: Windswept

Book Review: Windswept by Adam Rakunas

Padma Mehta used to work for The Man.  That is, WalWa, one of the Big Three megacorporations that own most of Occupied Space.  She was good at her job, too, despite the shabby treatment she often got.  Then Bad Things happened, and Padma Breached, breaking her indenture contract to join the Union on Santee.

Windswept

Now Padma’s a Ward Head for the Union in Brushhead, one of the neighborhoods in Santee Landing.  But now she has other plans–the owner of the distillery that makes Padma’s favorite rum “Old Windswept” is retiring, and Padma wants to buy that distillery to make sure the sanity-restoring drink remains made just the right way.  But to do that, Padma must fill job Slots for the Union, and that means finding new Breaches to take those Slots.  When a mining ship disaster kills the discontented workers she was counting on, Padma is forced to accept a deal with small time con artist Vytai Bloombeck, who knows where some other Breaches are coming to the planet.

Except, of course, that there are five Breaches (six if you count the corpse), not forty, and rival ward head Evanrute Saarien is determined to steal even those to add to his own credit with the Union.  And things just continue to go downhill from there, with disgruntled Union workers, corporate assassins and a deadly cane blight all making Padma’s life even more awful than she perhaps deserves.  The only people that might be on Padma’s side are rogue cab driver Jilly and recently Breached lawyer Banks, and that might just be because they don’t know her well enough.

This science fiction novel is set in a future that’s not the worst possible outcome, but is full of broken systems.  Yes, being a corporate Indenture means that you get many benefits, like the “pai” (never actually explained but probably short for “personal assistant implant”) hooked up to your optic nerve to allow wireless communication among other neat features.  But the Big Three tend to cheap out on the actual quality of the benefits, and every upgrade comes with more time on your indenture.

The Union is no bed of roses either; there’s a bunch of low-level job Slots that need filling, and rookies go straight into things like sewer cleaning and hull scraping, regardless of actual skill set.  Getting into better Slots takes the ability to convince the Union you’re worthy, and new Breaches coming in to take the lowest Slots.  (Bloombeck’s been stuck in the sewers for decades because no one likes him enough to find him a better Slot.)

Padma has a lot of flaws, some of which are related to the mental illness that she got during her service to WalWa.  Old Windswept is the only effective treatment she’s found for The Fear, so that’s her top priority.  Unfortunately, Santee has fallen off the main trade routes, so fewer ships are coming for the cane, molasses and galaxy’s best rum, and thus fewer Breaches to feed her kitty and let her workers rise in the ranks.  As a result of her worries about this, Padma has not kept her ear to the ground about various developing situations around the colony, and that comes back to bite her repeatedly.

Something else that bites Padma is her habit of assuming people she meets have always been what they are when she meets them.  More than one person has a secret past that has bearing on current events.  Other people turn out to be exactly what Padma thinks they are, which may be worse.

Once the ball gets rolling, it’s pretty much non-stop peril for Padma and her crew, only getting breathing space to set up more peril.  There’s a fair amount of violence, but more disturbing in its implications than graphic.

There’s no romance subplot, but Padma does have plot-relevant casual sex towards the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the happiest part of the ending is that Padma’s a better person than she was before everything happened, even if she didn’t exactly get what she wanted.

Other characters develop depth of personality only by what Padma sees them do, as makes sense in a first-person narrative.  Banks is far more complex than he initially seems, while Jilly is young and rather callow, but learning fast.  Other characters…well, that’d be spoilers.

At least one scene is designed to be in the potential movie version, as lampshaded by the characters in it talking about the movies they’ve seen and whether this is actually something that could happen in real life.

I enjoyed the book and the characters–it’s not often a battle-scarred, middle-aged woman of South Asian descent is the protagonist in an action novel.  (However, the treatment of her mental illness may not be fully accurate; I am not qualified to tell.)

Recommended to fans of science fiction action, and rum drinkers.

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident by James A. Zarzana

It’s a Marsco world.

The Marsco Dissident

Much has changed by the last years of the 21st Century.  The rot started to set in with the Abandonment Policy (euphemized as “Divestiture”) where countries with prosperous sections and not-so-prosperous bits split off the not-prosperous sectors as “another country now, not our responsibility” and shoved any citizens they didn’t want to keep for whatever reason into the new Unincorporated Zones.  (It’s implied that even the United States did this on an unofficial basis.)  The new rich countries became the Continental Powers, while the castoffs became PRIMS.

Meanwhile, an IT startup ambitiously named “Marsco” grew into a cross between Microsoft, the Union and Pacific, and United Fruit Company.  Yes, it did eventually get to Mars, and its innovative finger disc cybernetic implants became the new status symbol.  As part of its philanthropic aims, it became the primary benefactor of PRIMS, providing food rations, some medical care, etc.

A Luddite movement also grew, primarily among the PRIMS who found themselves shut out of the modern world, starving and ridden with cure-resistant diseases.  It also found favor among some in the CP, and even associates of Marsco itself.

Eventually, the Continental Powers decided that Marsco was too powerful, and tried to nationalize it.  This was a huge mistake as the megacorporation had designed all their computers, had its own armed forces and the advantage of operating from space.  They even got PRIM armies on their side.  If that wasn’t enough, the more violent strains of the Luddites took advantage of the chaos to destroy or infect any high technology they could reach.

Now, Marsco rules what’s left of Earth’s population, just as a temporary measure until the locals can get back on their feet.  Except that it’s been a generation, and Marsco control doesn’t seem to be going away, and the Unincorporated Areas aren’t getting any better.  Certain people are beginning to realize that Marsco isn’t the solution anymore, it’s the problem….

This book is the first in a series planned for four volumes, the “Marsco Saga.”  It’s serious about the “saga” part; months or years often pass between segments of the story and I suspect by the end we’ll be reading about the grandchildren of the current characters.  It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction book that fits more into the “future history” subgenre than action.

The dissident of the title is Dr. Walter Miller, formerly one of Marsco’s most brilliant engineers, but now on an extended sabbatical  on his independent farm/research facility in what used to be the Sacramento Valley.  The first few chapters concern a visit to him by his daughter, Professor Tessa Miller, who teaches at a Marsco academy.  Her journey across Sac City to his grange has some interesting world-building, but then there’s no sign of a plot for a while.

Abruptly, we switch to a shuttle in the asteroid belt, and an entirely different set of characters for several chapters.  Not all of the crew or passengers manage to survive the sudden emergence of plot.

And then, it’s months later in a different part of the asteroid belt, and an Independent colony views the arrival of a mysterious Marsco deep-space craft with justifiable suspicion.  This part introduces another of our protagonists, Lieutenant Anthony “Zot” Grizzoti is one of the crew of the Gagarin, and Tessa’s ex.  He’s a specialist in hibernation technology, and knows things he can’t reveal.

Some time later, we’re in the SoAm Continental Zone, as Father Stephen Cavanaugh goes to the camp of the Nexus, the most violent of the Luddite factions, in order to retrieve two boys they’d lured away from his school for PRIMS.  A former student of his, Pete Rivers, is one of the Marsco Security personnel that escorts the priest to the area, but from there Cavanaugh must proceed on his own.   This is the tensest part of the book and could stand on its own as a novella.

With most of the characters now introduced, the story moves forward.

The best part of the book is the world-building.  Mr. Zarzana has done a lot of research, and worked out the details of the Marsco world.  The book comes with a glossary (there are some mild spoilers in this section) due to all the specialized terminology and future slang.  While some of the steps to reach this setting are dubious, it all hangs together well enough once it’s there.

However, a lot of the information is delivered in professorial lectures (Dr. Zarzana himself is a professor of English), which can get tedious.  A little fun is had with the delivery by having a precocious child do some of the lectures to show off to adults.  But too often, it comes across as “As you know, Bob….”

Many of the more interesting characters are in the book too little and some of them won’t be returning later.  I found the Tessa/Zot romance bits tepid and was irritated every time it came up.

The primary active villain, Colonel Hawkins, is planning to avenge the Continental Powers’ defeat and is working with others who want to change the balance of power, and haven’t realized just how obsessed he is.

Marsco has a lot of classism (Marsco associates on top, Sids (people who trade with Marsco) in the middle, and PRIMS on the bottom and treated as barely human), but little racism–one of the associates suddenly breaking out racist slurs shocks his colleagues and is taken as an indicator of his actual age.  Casual racism is more common among the Earth-bound.

There’s a lot of talk about rape, (including a possibly fake story about mind control rape) and a couple of attempted rapes onscreen .  Prostitution is rife in the non-Marsco areas. There’s bursts of violence, some of it dire.

This book is self-published, and the latter half starts having spellchecker typos (“site” for “sight” several times) which suggests that with books this size, the proofreader should take the job in smaller chunks.

Overall…it’s a decent beginning, but not really satisfying on its own.  A lot will depend on the next part expanding on the themes and subplots satisfactorily.  Consider this if you like detailed world-building.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

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