As highly socialized apes, we are fascinated by human interactions. We’re attuned to conflicts, and conflict resolution, and bargaining, and all manner of seduction. And we love to read about all those things in our fiction. Why, then, aren’t there more books about union organizers? People who organize labor see the gamut of human emotion: greed, hope, disappointment, rage. Their job is to get a large number of people to do something. It’s never an easy task, and it seems like ripe territory for a novelist.
Last year, a new-to-Seattle author named Adam Rakunas published a fun and fast-moving debut sci-fi novel titled Windswept about a union organizer named Padma Mehta who works in Santee Anchorage, a haven for immigrants from across space. Last week, Rakunas published the second book in what is now the Windswept series, Like a Boss, and it improves on the original in part because Rakunas focuses even more on the human interaction that makes Padma’s job so fascinating.
Unfortunately, Like a Boss does fall prey to a mildly annoying science fiction trend: while the book does have a beginning, middle, and end of its own, it’s clearly part of a series, and the first third of the book is full of unsatisfying expository dumps to remind the reader of what happened in the previous book. These stretches of exposition will likely not satisfy new readers, and they serve as an uncomfortable transition into the world. The fact is, you should read Windswept before you read Like a Boss, and the presumptive third book in the series will likely continue this trend. While it makes financial sense for publishers of sci-fi paperbacks to focus their energies on series, it would be nice if, rather than treating the books like a single continuing season of a television series, the author ensured each volume was readable and enjoyable on its own.
As Like a Boss opens, Padma is balancing her life in Santee and her new career as the owner of the small Windswept Rum Distillery. So far as balances go, it’s pretty steady, or at least only slightly wobbly: her functional alcoholism is under control, her attention is stretched thin, and things have been relatively quiet. Within a few pages of the book’s opening, of course, the situation deteriorates: sugarcane workers across the planet are disappearing. The villain of Windswept, Evanrute Saarien, has somehow gotten out of jail and started a sinister new religion. And a strike is on the horizon that threatens to bring the whole planet down. Soon enough, Padma is enlisted by the president of the Union to quell the impending strike.
Along the way, Padma explains why she’s so damn good at her job with the Union:
My first boss when I joined the Union was a foul-mouthed former data analyst for MacDonald Heavy named Heiu Vanavutu. The day I signed up to be an organizer, he sat me down and told me that the only thing that mattered in this job was planning. Forget all that bullshit about issues and personal leverage and knowing who was having sex with whom. A good plan of attack could make or break a labor action. And that meant sifting through data until your eyes hurt and your brain demanded alcohol and sex.
Later, Padma tells someone that “trying to organize people without listening to them is crap” — another trait she shares with a good noirish private detective — and near the climax of Like a Boss she delivers a little economic speech that makes as strong a case for unions that I’ve read this year. But this isn’t mindless lefty agitprop — the villain isn’t a greedy corporate overlord from the planet Exxon or anything so simple as that.
The problems in Like a Boss are human problems, and Padma endeavors to solve them using her own humanity, with charisma and charm and reason and humor. She encounters some of her own deep-seated flaws and struggles to come to some kind of a peace with herself. Like Windswept, Like a Boss mixes noir elements with a sci-fi setting and trappings. Padma has an implant in her head that functions, basically, like a hyper-efficient Google, but she still burns shoe-leather walking around town trying to solidify her base. Rakunas wisely understands that not every problem can be solved with technology, and in fact the biggest problems almost always find their sources in our simian roots.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant