2023’s Warped State is the first book in Jo Miles’ The Gifted of Brennex series.
Ravel Corporation is the very model of a modern major corporation. It maximizes shareholder value and CEO compensation, while paying the minimum possible to its employees (who are expected to be grateful for having a job at all). Only a wild-eyed political extremist would see this arrangement as anything other than just … even nigh-utopian.
But Brennex is a planet inhabited by wild-eyed political extremists who have driven Ravel off their world. Few are as wild-eyed or politically extreme as Jasper Wilder, field agent for the Cooperative, that cabal of willful labor organizers.
The provocation that led to the Brennex uprising was a demographic calamity. For years, fertility had been plummeting, likely due to chemical pollution left behind by Ravel’s R&D division. Birthrates rebounded followed Ravel’s exit, but there is a missing generation in the population pyramid.
Jasper Wilder, field agent, is keen to prevent Ravel from polluting another planet. Ravel is just as keen to manufacture and sell their intelligence-enhancing drug1, the same drug whose precursors caused the Lost Generation. Jasper and his fellow activist Valkier head for the planet of Artesia.
There they find an unexpected complication. Ravel has recruited the non-human inhabitants of Artesia, the Kovars, into their workforce. One of them, a Kovar named Sowing of Small Havoc, has already noticed that the Kovars are consigned to the lower ranks. Even though Ravel has quite diligent in protecting its employees from the knowledge of such concepts as universal rights and worker organization, Havoc has independently invented the labor union and peaceful protests. He has organized, petitioned, and demonstrated, to no effect. This has not improved his career prospects.
Jasper is sure that Havoc could be a useful ally for the Cooperative. Havoc, however, suspects that Jasper will cheerfully sacrifice non-human allies to achieve Cooperative goals. There is no alliance.
Jasper and Valkier persist, mounting a sabotage campaign. This turns out to be a debacle. Valkier dies and Jasper barely escapes. The company needs a scapegoat. Havoc. His arrest and punishment will be a spectacle that will surely extinguish any union hopes.
Jasper resolves to rescue Havoc. The plot comes to the attention of security consultant Grist. Things look grim, but … there’s an unseen player in the game, a player who will covertly steer matters towards a goal of its own choosing.
As evil corporations go, Ravel is fairly benign. Partly this may be due to arrogance. Their position appears unassailable, thus no need to invest the resources needed to overtly terrorize the workforce. Partly it may be due to a fear of media attention. A company with policies like those of [name removed to avoid career-ending lawsuit] would be seen as cartoonishly evil.
I note that the plot depends on an odd biological fact: Kovars see further into the visual spectrum than do humans, which allows Jasper and Havoc’s secret ally to relay messages that Grist cannot see.
Speaking of the secret ally, the identity of said ally [spoiler!] is good news for Martha Wells, as it suggests that her Murderbot books have become part of the SFnal collective imagination. Unbeknownst to Grist, his spacecraft Ship has become intelligent. While Ship is both constrained by programming and keenly interested in not being returned to factory settings, it’s independent enough to have a significant effect on the plot.
One cannot help but notice that the Ravel corporation tends to prioritize rank over competence. (Stop a moment to think of all the groups of which this is true….) As a consequence. Ravel’s anti-union measures are shoddy. They will only work if the other side messes up (which to be fair is something the Cooperative tends to do). Ravel has also hired a security consultant who is not at all well-paid and who is in chronic pain from his enhancements.
This was an enjoyable little page turner, although I imagine some of you could be fired if HR discovered you were reading a book about unions. Select your reading time judiciously.
Warped State is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Barnes & Noble). I did not find Warped State at Apple Books. I also did not find it at Chapters-Indigo, although it is available at Kobo and should show up on a Chapters search. There was some definite weirdness going on with Chapters, where the search engine kept correcting my search terms.
1: A minor secret Jasper is keen to conceal is that the small handful of people born during the Lost Generation have uncanny gifts. If this were publicly known, it would further incentivize Ravel to pursue research into their drug.