By Lisa Allen-Agostini
Ragamuffin, by Tobias S. Buckell
(Tor, ISBN-13 9780765315076, ISBN-10 0765315076, 316 pp)
Tobias S. Buckell. Photograph by Jan Hilty, courtesy Tor Books
I’ll say it up front: Ragamuffin, Tobias S. Buckell’s second novel, caught me completely off guard. My first reading of it was voracious; I finished it in about a day, and felt satisfied that it was a thrilling, fast-paced sci-fi action-adventure novel with some interesting themes, and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in speculative fiction.
On a second reading, I noticed the book contained a wealth of material to discuss cultural hegemony, access to technology, and notions of sovereignty, not to mention race and gender. In fact, Ragamuffin is a significant examination of the above ideas, which became so transparent to me on reflection and re-reading that I wondered at myself for having sidestepped them the first time around. It’s a testament to Buckell’s skill that his book functions so well on such different levels: it’s both a superbly smooth sci-fi read and a timely analysis of the Caribbean in which we live today.
The Grenada-born author’s follow-up to his well-received first novel Crystal Rain is endorsed by the Sci Fi Channel as a “Sci Fi Essential Book”, which is kind of like the Oprah Book Club for the outer-space set. It’s published by Tor, a premier publisher of speculative fiction, which has published the likes of Isaac Asimov, the great-granddaddy of sci-fi. In short, it has solid cred in the genre. One would expect great characters, gripping plots, and the creation of a universe that hangs together believably. But Buckell delivers much more.
Ragamuffin returns to the universe Buckell created in his first novel; he calls it a “semi-independent sequel” to the first book. It is set in a universe whose worlds are connected by wormholes and ruled by a non-human federation called the Benevolent Satrapy, and its main characters are black people marooned in space and under attack by both the Satrapy and another alien race, the Teotl. The new book brings back characters from the first, including Pepper, an inhumanly precise killing machine, and John deBrun, a revolutionary hero of the lost world of New Anegada. It’s lost because the wormhole connecting it to the rest of the worlds has been closed for hundreds of years. DeBrun and Pepper are nearly immortal; Ragamuffin introduces another long-lived character, Nashara.
The novel is split into three parts, beginning with Nashara’s machinations to return to her (also lost) home world of Chimsom, moving to DeBrun and Pepper’s battles with the Teotl in New Anegada, and concluding with the confluence of the first two parts. Nashara is a cyborg (although nobody calls her that in the book), a human so densely layered with technological additions that she could destroy a ship’s electronic navigational system using her mind alone, if she were to but jack into it, Matrix-like, and interfere with its “lamina,” an omnipresent information feed that connects humans and machines. Her technology is illegal, as all access to technology is controlled by the Satrapy, and when uppity humans try to access it they’re not merely killed but “mind wiped,” effectively lobotomised and rendered passive and tractable. She’s a freedom fighter on her own, a one-woman army with scary, fascinating powers and skills. For instance, she’s been modified to survive for a short time in the vacuum of space, even while her hair and skin freeze and drop off; she’s also an assassin who can kill even the most highly trained of the Satrapy’s security forces with basically a table knife and a smile.
That Nashara is black and the progeny of a Caribbean-descended people called the Ragamuffins is no coincidence. Buckell, like his fellow Caribbean speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, appears committed to colourising sci-fi. The genre needs it, having been historically dominated by white writers and heroes. There’s no excuse for that continuing, and that is proven by the success of franchises such as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, which feature non-white heroes, and Blade, a black comic-book vampire whose story was made into a movie trilogy starring Hollywood’s Wesley Snipes. In theory, gone are the days when the only non-white characters in the genre had to be like the growling, howling Wookie Chewbacca of Star Wars. In theory, anyway.
Buckell’s blog features a post in response to comments by writer Douglas Blaine on “Shame”, an essay by Pam Noles. Noles’s essay discusses the lack of multiculturalism and multiracialism in speculative fiction of the past:
I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.
Noles quotes Le Guin talking about her disappointment that the Sci Fi Channel’s adaptation of Le Guin’s novels featured white actors in the roles of her non-white characters. It’s called “colour-blind casting”; but the only people who don’t notice the change seem to be white. All of which are among the reasons Buckell’s books are significant. Right off the bat, it is clear that the characters aren’t merely “colour-blind,” but actively black and Caribbean. They eat porridge, talk patois, and have religious systems resembling the Orisha and vodou traditions. They even wear dreadlocks. The super-efficient security force in New Anegada are called “mongoose-men,” after the secret police of Eric Gairy’s Grenada. (Buckell was born during the Revolution and grew up in Grenada and the British Virgin Islands before moving to the US, where he now lives.
Ragamuffin pits these neo-Caribbeans and other humans against the forty-eight planets of the Satrapy, and by the end of the novel it seems to be the start of a larger fight that will, no doubt, continue in Buckell’s body of work. They are fighting not just for the right to exist, but to be free and to stand as humans in a universe dominated by non-humans. The book begins with Nashara on a planet where the only humans are either pets or else penned into a reservation from which they need passes to exit. The allegory I get from it points to the US domination of non-Americans and non-US culture, and US control — through economic and social pressures—of access to wealth and opportunity. To the Caribbean person standing in line for a US visa, our “pass” out of the “reservation,” it might seem apt. As Nashara thinks on the first page of the book, “People could be more than this.”
The Satrapy has restricted access not only to passes but to fuel and the wormholes; ships must be licensed to get from one to the other, and the rulers have shut off both New Anegada and Chimsom from the mainstream by closing their wormholes: “They could shut down the wormholes to human-occupied worlds that scared them . . . They could do it to stop the nuclear suicide bombers, or to Chimsom for trying to gain independence,” Buckell writes. But the humans might be part of their own destruction; one human freedom fighter asks Nashara whether the few million humans in the Satrapy could ever govern themselves. “I’ve been in it,” Nashara replies. “It’s messy but it’s all ours.”
Like many new speculative fiction writers, Buckell’s conception of the universe is more than a white-bread reproduction of Main Street, USA. There are echoes of Buddhism in some characters, like the charming and intriguing Etsudo, a sneaky ship’s captain in league with the Satrapy. He is kind and cruel, a master manipulator in an ascetic’s robes. The Teotl are the gods of the neo-Aztec civilisation, Azteca, that shares New Anegada with the neo-Caribbeans, and Buckell returns to the exploration of the savage religion of the bloodthirsty priests he featured in Crystal Rain. There’s plenty of history here, but also plenty of food for thought on how two diametrically opposed peoples can share one planet without killing each other. In Buckell’s universe it doesn’t seem possible. Hopefully, in ours, we can write a different ending.
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She is currently working on a teen action-adventure manuscript, and she writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.