Review: Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin, L. Timmel Duchamp’s Tsunami, and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, reviewed by Sean Melican

Review: Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin, L. Timmel Duchamp’s Tsunami, and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, reviewed by Sean Melican

Ragamuffin, Tobias S. Buckell. Tor: 2007. ISBN: 0-765-35090-4

Tsunami, L. Timmel Duchamp. Aqueduct Press: 2007. ISBN: 1-933500-09-3

Brasyl, Ian Macdonald. Pyr: 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59102-543-6

Reviewed by Sean Melican.

Tobias S. Buckell’s second novel, Ragamuffin, has the overt hallmarks of space opera: vast, sprawling, vividly imagined locations connected by (currently) impossible science, enormous weapons, ginormous spaceships (at least one is more than a mile long), and at stake is nothing less than the fate of the universe. All of which makes for a thrilling ride, particularly one of the most exciting chase scenes I can recall, and even more thrilling as it employs one of the hardest but very basic scientific laws. If I wanted to see my name, or at least Ideomancer’s name on the back cover, I could accurately say something like, “It’s a thrilling ride, a real page-turner-I couldn’t put it down!-from start to finish, chock full of heroes and villains, big science….”

But one only has to look at the cover, too, ironically, to see the changes beneath the surface: one of the heroes, Nashara, is black and more importantly, it’s not as if Mr. Buckell spun a color wheel for the sole purpose of ‘diversity’; she would not be the same character if she were not black. While little is made of her color by other characters, it informs and ultimately identifies her as a part of a group, and discredits the traditional space opera notion of color-blindness. This isn’t the homogenous species of ‘human;’ there is a loose scattering of groups of humans: some ethnic, some ideological, some loyal to the concept of ‘human’ while others are loyal to their masters, and several groups (not just the last two) are diametrically opposed to others. We do not stand as a monolithic entity against the aliens or galaxy, we bicker and fight and bitterly oppose one another.

Even more surprising, and a stronger indicator of Mr. Buckell’s efforts to undermine the implicit assumptions of space opera, is Mr. Buckell’s inversion of the assumed natural order: humans, all humans, are at the bottom of the totem pole, the food chain, the barrel. The Benevolent Satrapy has ’emancipated’ humanity but can and will revoke our emancipation-indeed, some alien races keep us as pets or see as an unwelcome infestation-and the condition of said emancipation is strict limits on technological development. We may be free in name, but to oppose the aliens who are our masters and superiors, even in the supposed neutrality of science, is to invite bondage.

The story? Nashara carries a superweapon that could truly emancipate humanity but to unleash it would destroy herself. The Raga, or Ragamuffin, a group of free humans descended (in yet another inversion) from Caribbean cultures, want to protect her and have to obey her. Naturally, others loyal to the Satrapy want to kill her while still others would use her for their own benefit. There are gripping chase scenes and a fantastic space battle, big ideas and big science, philosophical and moral complexities. But even in his science, Mr. Buckell twists the usual form, for spaceships are not expendable, but extremely expensive. Actual combat is rare, and staged battles are avoided at almost all costs. Characters are stunned when a fleet of ships is detached to conduct an actual military attack with the ultimate goal of utter destruction, not because of the immorality, but the economic ramifications. The Ragamuffin were free to be ‘free’ in their own space, but the cost was isolation-now the Satrapy wants to be thoroughly rid of them. Will Nashara succeed? Duh, yes, but at what cost? Without revealing too much, grandiose, martyr-like gestures of heroism do not result in the greatest loss, but a minor, almost trivial act, which results in only a few lives saved (a pittance on the space opera scale-a pittance nearly always ignored before but brought to the forefront now), is the most emotionally devastating… and it leads a hero to commit a villainous crime.

For those who’ve read Mr. Buckell’s first novel Crystal Rain, the tortured John deBrun and enigmatic, (apparently) carelessly violent Pepper appear, but it is not critical to have read the first.

This is grand space opera on a human scale.


The first two books of L. Timmel Duchamp’s The Marq’ssan Cycle were reviewed here in January and as this is the third book in a five book series, I don’t want to say too much other than this is perhaps the most important science fiction series, taking full advantage of science fiction’s extrapolative nature. Ms. Duchamp does not invent nifty technologies; she invents an entire socio-political system and then systematically deconstructs the very nature of human social systems.

The third book, Tsunami, continues the story through the characters of Elizabeth Weatherall, Martha Greenglass, and Celia Espin. Weatherall is the assistant to the director of Security, for all intents running Security, but when her superior appoints a man as his second-in-command, solely because of his sex, Weatherall is forced to confront the unspoken assumptions of the system she has, until now, fiercely defended. Espin is a lawyer who will be tortured and ‘named’, which prevents her from practicing law or even speaking publicly on any issue. While Espin’s story is brutal, it’s her effect on naive, Executive, sympathetic Emily’s blindness to the Executive system’s arrogance, hypocrisy, and cruelty. And while Greenglass’ story takes fewer pages, it is ultimately the most important, as she must face not just the problems of the Executive system, but the very nature of being human, and how it is entangled with our social, political, and legal structures. In a powerful monologue, she destructures the underpinnings of said structures-namely the us vs. them false dichotomy. Frankly, this passage (and the whole series, as it’s impossible to understand the sheer mass of the significance of Greenglass’ words) should be required reading, not just now, as the flaws of the democratic-republic become clear, but at every moment in history, particularly as Ms. Duchamp makes a clear case that voting is a tool of the political class, not a tool for the masses to control the political class. Sadly, as Aqueduct Press says about its mission:

Although feminist science fiction has been thriving for thirty years, its role as an oppositional literature means that it will almost never be “mainstream” enough to attract an audience that makes works best-selling blockbusters or even meets the bottom-line criterion of corporate publishers and booksellers that prevails in the industry today.

There are lovely artistic touches: sly criticism of our consumerist bigger-is-better culture, and a wonderfully crafted homage to the stark, unforgiving beauty of deserts.

Buy this book. Buy the series. Give it as a gift to your mothers, sisters, and daughters. Convince your fathers, brothers, and sons to read them. When you’re finished, don’t let them languish on a shelf. Ask your library to stock them. Science fiction has languished on the edges, largely because it has made itself irrelevant by ignoring serious issues, instead focusing on poorly imagined, overly optimistic or pessimistic scenarios. Ms. Duchamp has brought science fiction back to the center, using the full power of its possibilities.


In River of Gods (and related stories), Ian McDonald seamlessly integrated science fiction with India. In Brasyl, he does the same with South America. This time, he weaves three apparently disparate stories. (Do you really think they won’t collide?) Marcelina produces reality television taken to the (il)logical extreme: we first see her leaving a high-end car (actually, not so high-end) unlocked, with the keys in the ignition. When car thieves take the car, she calls in the police and offers the thieves the car if they can evade the police for a half hour. All, of course, to be filmed. In River of Gods, Mr. McDonald played with the shallow obsessions television beams into our living rooms: there, he was less obvious, theorizing that the staged ‘real lives’ of virtual television stars would be followed as, or more, obsessively than the show itself. But we’ve seen reality television taken to extreme levels already. Still, Mr. McDonald surprises: when Marcelina goes in search of a national disgrace what she finds…

Edson is our eyes on the future. In 2033, he becomes involved with high-tech quantum hackers, who have found what may be a secret worth dying for, a secret which holds the key to the universe. (If it sounds like it’s ripped from the flap, it’s not). The future is a little bland, a little of this and that from other sources, though it has some brilliant inventions, most notably the idea that there are landfills are literally mountains of trash through which an entire underclass survives and even thrives by stripping the garbage of every reusable bit.

The best of the triad is the story of Father Luis, a large, black, former swordsman slash current Jesuit priest sent to the backwaters of Brazil to bring back a priest who has abandoned the faith and is now a leader of a strange, occult religion, which worships, of all things, frogs. Why? Frogs’ eyes can capture a single photon of light-and if you paid any attention in physics class, there are a number of implications for this natural phenomenon (think interference vs. photoelectric effect). Indeed, one of the very few beefs I have with this book is the excessive, intrusive physics lessons- you and I know a great deal already about alternate world and quantum theories-at least, if you’re any fan of science fiction at all. However, unlike the patchwork future, the past is richly imagined and sensuous in detail. The resemblances to Heart of Darkness and Apocolypse Now must surely be deliberate; but fortunately, Mr. McDonald focuses on the beginnings of the journey, introducing us to the strangeness of pre-Christian Brazil and largely skipping the introspective, potentially navel-gazing journey up the river. The journey is taken for granted; it’s the basis for the occult religion which Father Luis finds that matters.

Conspiracies and conspirators abound. Not just the world, but the whole of reality (if it is even real and very well may not be) erm, hangs in the balance.

Very few ideas are new; indeed, several are quite old and quite thoroughly explored. But Mr. McDonald’s strength is not invention, but the insistence that science fiction is not only about white, European males. There are many reasons to read this book, but that is the most important- and likely will be least discussed and least imitated, borrowed, or stolen.

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