Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin was not on my original list of Hugo-nominee possibilities, being pretty much absent from the year-end lists, but Chad reminded me of it, and when I bounced hard off the next thing on my list (more on that later), I gave it a try. I enjoyed it a good deal, and am glad to see that it’s just been nominated for a Nebula.
This is set after Buckell’s first novel, Crystal Rain, which I haven’t read, but which was steampunk set on New Anegada, a cut-off colony established by Caribbean settlers. Ragamuffin is space opera largely set out among the worlds that New Anegada had been cut off from. About four hundred years ago, humanity hit space to find it controlled by the Benevolent Satrapy (which would be a great band name), an alien government that strictly limits technological progress of the species under its dominion—up to and including collapsing wormholes to troublesome planets. As the book opens, a character named Nashara is trying to leave a planet where humans are kept on a reservation or as pets; her departure is a matter of some urgency, as she’s killed a high-ranking alien in exchange for a ticket off the planet and a continuation of her mission against the Satrapy.
The first half of the book follows Nashara as she works her way toward the Ragamuffins of the title, the ships left behind when New Anegada was cut off. According to Wikipedia, Raggamuffin (double-g) is both a kind of reggae and an appropriated self-designation by Jamaicans, making it appropriate to the Caribbean roots of the characters and to humanity’s status in this universe. This Caribbean influence is one of the things I like best about the book: first, it’s something different, which as I’ve said before goes a lot way with me these days; and second, it adds another layer of resonance to the classic SF stories of the struggle for self-determination in the face of a larger and more powerful force and of the search for a home.
In addition to this extra resonance, I like the way that the book complicates these stories along the way. Characters display a realistic range of responses to being part of a species not at the top of the food chain; various things turn out to be more ambiguous or complicated than they first appear; and costs are not ignored. For some reason I had the impression this was a light and fluffy book, rather than the gritty and moderately dark one it turns out to be.
Also, of course, I like all the fast-paced action and adventure. The scene on the cover makes me want to win the lottery so I can go to the Wachowski brothers and say to them, “here’s a truckload of money. You can have it if you go apologize to Jada Pinkett Smith for what you did to her character in the Matrix trilogy, promise not to add a Great White Male Savior, and then film this.” The book moves quite briskly, only stumbling briefly when it switches gears halfway through to New Anegada and the characters from Crystal Rain. Despite this jarring moment, though, I do think that separate parts was preferable to interleaving the sections: at the close of part one, it’s clear how those characters will be meeting up with the New Anegada characters, which might not have been the case if the sections were interleaved. Also, part two is short in comparison, which would have increased the awkwardness of switching back and forth. (Part three is where the characters meet up.)
My only other quibble with the book is the prose, which I found a bit terse or choppy, enough so that I never fell all the way through the page. On the other hand, I’m not usually sensitive to prose, and it might just have been the cold I was coming down with. At any rate, it didn’t keep me from really enjoying the book, which can be summed up as a thoughtful look at social issues, particularly race, in the form of good solid SF fun.