Padma Mehta is a Union representative on a hardscrabble planet at the edge of the known universe. Her job is to recruit people who escape from passing spaceships owned by The Big Three corporations. (I’ll explore in more detail why they jump ship in a bit). She’s only 30-odd people from her huge bonus, which she plans to spend on a rum distillery that she will run after she retires. When she gets wind of a large number of refugees about to drop onto the surface from orbit, she makes plans to grab them and attach them to her region. Unfortunately, her plans go awry as she is opposed by her arch-nemesis and thwarted by her foolish con-man acquaintance. What ensues is a series of entertaining hijinks through cane fields, the sea, and sewage tunnels as she tries to keep her new employees safe. Everything seems to continually go wrong for Padma and her charges, and she keeps having to alter her plans and make concessions in order to keep everyone alive, including herself.
The social and economic system that dominates the universe is one of corporate bondage, whereby individuals sign contracts with corporations that make them indentured servants for decades of their lives. The rationale given by supporters of it resembles the early indentured servitude in the American colonies and slavery (particularly, that it supposedly provides a support system, protects the “servants,” by providing them with everything they need and making difficult decisions for them). “Breaches” are people who escape from The Big Three, often by making extremely dangerous jumps from orbit to the surface of Windswept.
Padma, having escaped from her own contract, directly opposes the stranglehold the corporations have on people. A reluctant hero, with dreams of her own rum plantation constantly on her mind (and drifting further away, as she goes along), she nevertheless truly believes that everyone should be able to break free of their indentured servitude. As union members, she and others on Windswept are protected from the corporations by their … numbers? contract? This is never quite clear, but what is clear is that once the contract with the union is signed, a person is protected from the consequences of breaking their contract with the corporations. Union members are required to work in any job that is available, because there aren’t enough people to fill all the jobs, so many of them end up working in sewage and other unsavory positions, which causes some resentment among the rank and file, as you might guess. A third, less-explored level of freedom is enjoyed by the Freeborn, who are not members of the union or the corporations. Everyone – union, corporate servant, or freeborn – is open to the exploitation of the corporations.
As in any complex social system, there are different types of individuals. The unscrupulous opportunistic con men (one, a harmless if particularly smelly acquaintance of Padma and another, her arch-nemesis, who is playing both sides of the fence to his own advantage), the leader who cares for those under his supervision (a fellow Union representative of a different region), and several people who would prefer the status quo (that is, the corporations) to the new and challenging, as well as those open to challenge as long as it means more freedom. There are also shadowy characters whose motivations are unclear until the the situation unravels entirely.
Some of the relationships are more interesting than others. For example, how does the former lover and fellow Union rep, a leader of a different region who owes Padma a favor or two but is being squeezed by her nemesis, fit into her life? Or the clever lawyer sidekick who, while still new to this world, provides key assistance to Padma in her quest. Why is one of the refugees so protective of another? Is the lowlife con artist who tells her about the new refugees just annoying and money-grubbing, or is he genuinely malicious? These play out in predictable fashion for the most part, but I was surprised by a twist or two.
I liked Padma. She’s prickly, and entirely focused on the selfish reasons she has for rescuing her recruits, but her actions demonstrate that even though she does seem callous, she does care about the Breaches in her charge. She puts up a front of only caring about her own interests, not admitting even to herself that she cares about others. She reminds me of some of the classic detectives, with a deep vice that influences her actions, a bit of unapproachability, but underneath all that, an ability to do the right thing and even to care (a little bit) for others.
The most difficult thing about this book was the description of the world. For nearly the whole first half of the novel, I was confused about what certain slang terms mean. There is an ongoing metaphor used by the inhabitants of Windswept, in which they use fishing and oceanic terms to describe the corporation-owned spaceships that orbit, or land on, the planet. While the slang and other language used made the world feel more vivid, I stuttered several times trying to figure out the composition of the universe.
Let’s talk about interesting world-building, though. Padma lives in the first universe I have read that uses the way we use corn – as a sugar, as a basis for alcohol, as fuel. In structure, it is a lot like the importance to interstellar travel and planetary economies that the spice melange holds in the Dune universe. Windswept is the most productive planet for the manufacture of cane, thus this tiny backwater planet has become a contention point for the three different societal groups in the universe: the corporations, the union, and the free people.
The humor is one of the great advantages of this book, between Padma’s outlook on life, the platitudes and mendacious explanations she give to the Breaches in her charge, and the goofy mishaps she keeps having. Readers who enjoy their science fiction with humor and boisterous adventures will likely enjoy Windswept.
*Advance review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
If you enjoy the conflict between universal slavers and freepeople, as well as the influence a single resource can have on a universe, you might enjoy Dune, if you haven’t already read it. It’s epic in scope, slower in pacing, and more intricate in plotting, but so. very. good.
Another classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may interest readers who really enjoyed the hilarity of Windswept. You probably know all about it, but if you haven’t read it, here’s a reason to try it.