Friday, August 7, 2015

Windswept - Adam Rakunas

Windswept is Adam Rakunas’s debut novel. It’s a great mix of high-concept, discussing the roles and realities of labour and struggle in a spacefaring corporate future, and taut thriller – as our protagonist races against time to figure out what’s causing the city around her to fall apart, whilst dodging bullet and trying to find time to stop for a quick drink. It’s a book which has interesting things to say, and manages to express them successfully whilst keeping the reader both entertained and intrigued.

The setting is one of the stars of the text. A sprawling industrial city, divided into districts, most in some way dedicated to refining sugarcane or distilling rum. Possibly both. The city exists to move the cane, and an orbital tether is present in the city in order to drive goods into orbit. It has the raw, vital feeling of somewhere on the cusp of development, of becoming something great, or declining into a shadow of itself. Rakunas manages to make his city feel alive – the spattered rum on tabletops, the housing units made of landed cargo containers, the crash of surf against the cans of escaping ‘Breaches’…

Breaches, incidentally, is the word used for many of those living on the planet. In a universe which appears to be largely run by corporate fiat, and where many people work at interminable indentures for much, or all, of their lives, these individuals have chosen otherwise, and managed, somehow, to make their way down from orbit, looking for a better life at the bottom of the orbital well. They may find it, or at least something like it, with the Union, fronted by our protagonist – a sprawling labour organisation, which manages the non-corporate industry of the city. Unsurprisingly, however, the Union is a complicated place, filled with old rivalries and internecine internal politics. Rakunas doesn’t elide this, but lets the history between the protagonist and the remainder of the Union simmer in the background, inferred from asides in dialogue, or the very structure of the city.

There’s a whole social structure on display here. A sense of Union members and their time ‘in grade’,  indicating whether they get the best jobs. There’s the hunched, menacing spectre of the ongoing corporate presence in the city, in the appropriately named Thronehill. Then there’s the ‘Freeborn’, growing cane outside of the city limits, out of reach of the constant presence of the network everyone else is hooked into, independent, and sceptical of both Union and corporate promises. It’s a society in miniature, and the way it’s been structured makes it make sense – and it feels like an organic structure, accreted over time, a society which has been shaped by the people within it.

In that society sits our protagonist. An ex-corporate high flyer, now serving as a Union recruiter; one whose retirement plan involves retrieving just a few more Breaches after their escapes. The wonderfully named Padma Mehta is cynical, self-interested, and always expects the worst from people. In this, at least, she’s rarely disappointed. Rakunas manages to bring to life a character who is selfish, but not entirely self involved – pragmatic enough to be effective, but with enough empathy to be understandable. She also does a pretty good line in kicking arse, and has some genuinely witty dialogue.

It’s refreshing to see this approach – one in which the protagonist, whilst acting within semi (or indeed anti-) heroic constraints, recognises their own place within a system. Here is no Chosen One, rising up to overthrow a corrupt government – but a worn down, damaged individual, looking out for herself, and trying to do the best for those that depend upon her. And it works, it really does – the reader is drawn into the struggle with Padma, as her initial situation rapidly gets out of hand. 

Ruthless, willing to be physical, with a penchant for smart remarks and good rum, she’s an absolute pleasure to read. The supporting cast suffer somewhat by comparison. There’s some quirky characters in here – the entirely filthy Bloombeck, Padma’s old neighbour, for example, has the aura of sleaze and incompetence expertly evoked – but they’re really in the shade of the protagonist.  Still, they work well within their roles, giving Padma people to play off of, argue with, and occasionally punch in the face, so overall that’s fine.

Plot-wise…well, as ever, I don’t want to get into spoilers. I will say that Padma’s initial effort to recruit enough ‘Breaches’ into the Union is quickly subsumed into several  different schemes, all with far larger stakes. The plot ratchets up the tension early, and releases it every so often in fist fights, boat chases, shoot-outs…there’s a fair amount of action here. But it’s wrapped around a narrative core which is startlingly perceptive. One with mysteries at the centre, which are gradually answered through the course of the text. One which takes the characters it provides the reader, and slowly tells us more about them – and there are more than a few surprises.

This melange of fast-paced action, character study, social study and witty dialogue makes up a thoroughly enjoyable narrative treat – give it a chance, and it’ll reward your attention.

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