Adam Rakunas’ 2016 Like a Boss is a sequel to 2015’s Windswept.
Padma Mehta has not only survived her adventures in Windswept, but has become the new owner of a distillery. On the minus side, having her own business and being enough of a folk hero to have her own song doesn’t make up for the fact that her bold stratagem to save the galactic economy left her a trillion yuan in debt1. Not to mention that being a boss is an odd situation for a steadfast union organizer like Padma.
Not to worry! Soon her current situation will appear much more pleasant. Only by contrast, alas, because things are going to get much worse for Padma and her hometown, Santee Anchorage.
Padma’s bad day begins with unwelcome but familiar news: the distillery is having labour problems. At least the issue is something with which she has had lots of experience.
Padma isn’t the only owner on planet Windswept whose workers are angry. Strong-armed into investigating by Leticia “Letty” Smythe, the President of the Santee Anchorage Chapter of the Universal Freelancers’ Union, Padma soon discovers the reason. The planet Windswept is dominated by the Union, the last labour bulwark against the Big Three who dominate the rest of the galaxy. The Union is supposed look out for the little guy’s interests. What Padma finds is that the Union has been letting things slide, allowing the people at the bottom of the heap to descend into destitution.
But there’s more!
Padma’s old enemy Evanrute Saarien, last seen on his way to serve a fifty-year sentence on the island-prison Maersk, somehow got paroled forty-eight years early. The situation in Santee Anchorage is tailor-made for a schemer like Saarien. Saarien may seem sincere in his desire to make up for past sins, but his methods are making a bad situation worse.
Perhaps if Padma had been asked to help earlier, she could have done something to prevent the crisis. Now, as an entire planetary economy grinds to a halt in a sudden wildcat strike, what can one union-rep-turned-boss do?
I was going to call this “Rum, Sodality, and the Clash” but it turns out a lot of people have never encountered the term “sodality” before.
I had a pretty good sense of where the author’s sympathies were because he opens with this epigraph:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with. — Rose Schneiderman, at the 1912 Lawrence textile strike
The planet Windswept is one of a small number of communities where the soul-killing corporate culture of the Big Three does not hold complete power. Instead, it is dominated by organized labour, the Freelancers Union. Rakunas may be firmly pro-organized labour, but he’s not blinded by loyalty to the (plot-generating) flaws of human organizations. Not only is the Union needlessly dismissive of the freeborn (neither corporate nor union) but as Padma very quickly discovers, the Union has abandoned many of its own members.
Because this is the first Rakunas I have ever read, because like a sap I asked for a review copy of the sequel and not the first book in the series, there are some worldbuilding details at which I can only guess. I am not sure if Windswept is terraformed (although I think not) and if not, why an alien world is so well suited for a very specific form of agriculture (growing sugarcane).
It did occur to me as I was reading that Windswept’s agrarian economy, which is dependent on trading a very small number of goods (sugarcane products) for the high tech goods it cannot make itself, with a corporation that is hostile to the very existence of the Union as its primary trade partner, must be extremely fragile. It turns out this isn’t a worldbuilding flaw but a plot point. It may be this economic backwardness that explains another head-scratcher, which is why it is that the cane industry is so primitive. Manual labourers swinging machetes under a broiling sun, rather than robots or even mechanical harvesters. My head canon for this says that Windswept prefers to keep people employed, even inefficiently, rather than buy robots from companies overtly hostile to the union and the freeborn.
Like a Boss pleasantly subverted my expectations in a number of ways. Given the setup, it would be easy for the big problem to be the evil corporations: the galaxy is, after all, literally against Windswept. Instead, while the Big Three are an ever-present concern, the crisis Padma faces is home-grown, driven by local problems and bad but believable decisions by Union leaders. At the same time, this is not yet another libertarian pro-management wankfest; the union has problems, but it is much better than the alternative.
Padma herself is an interesting character. She is cynical about the reality of the union while passionately believing in its ideals; she is observant enough to unravel what’s going on fairly quickly but so distracted by her personal problems that she doesn’t see the big picture until it is very nearly too late. Her strength is persuasive rhetoric, not punching out bad guys. Violence may have its visceral pleasures (as the mob scenes clearly show), but actually solving problems requires more finesse + considered thought than lobbing bricks or burning a city down.…
(I may review a lot of books from the past, but I also review the present. This book is present to the nth. Hot off the presses! Super-fresh electrons! Ebook available June 7!)
1: It was a particularly bold stratagem.
[Editor’s comment: I am reminded of Hawaiian history: we had the Big Five here, not the Big Three; we had immigrants swinging machetes in the cane fields and a militant union. Is this coincidence, or has the author read something about Hawai‘i? I should perhaps add that we have had our thoroughly corrupt unions as well.]