Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Ragamuffin by Tobias BuckellAs I mentioned in my review of Crystal Rain, I enjoyed reading Tobias Buckell’s debut novel, but I enjoyed reading the sequel, Ragamuffin (Tor, 2008), even more. This may be because Buckell has grown as a writer or it may be because Ragamuffin is more a traditional galaxy-spanning space opera, one of my favorite subgenres. But another reason is that there are more prominent libertarian themes in Ragamuffin than there were in Crystal Rain, enough that it was a finalist for the 2008 Prometheus Award.

Where Crystal Rain was set on a lost colony planet mostly devoid of advanced technology, Ragamuffin opens on an advanced planet ruled by an alien race called the Gahe, who are themselves a client race under the rule of the secretive Satraps. Human beings are officially “free” in the “benevolent” Satrapy, but in fact are forced to live on the margins of society — on space stations in the middle of nowhere, on interdicted planets cut off from the rest of the galaxy by collapsed wormholes (including Earth itself), or on reservations. On the Gahe planet, Astragalai, humans who don’t want to serve in the role of intelligent pet for a Gahe master must live on a reservation, which they can only leave when granted a temperary “human safety” pass. Woe to the human who does not return to his reservation before his temporary pass expires: the penalty is death or enslavement.

We are first introduced to the protagonist of the novel, Nashara, on one such reservation called Pitt’s Cross. Fans of Pepper and John from Crystal Rain will be increasingly disappointed not to see them at the outset, so I think it is best to go into this novel with the foreknowledge that characters from Crystal Rain do not make an appearance until about halfway through. Still, Nashara does quickly grow on you and you will get to see Pepper open a big ol’ can o’ whoop ass eventually, so hang in there. And if it’s Pepper-style whoop ass you’re after, Nashara will not disappoint.

So, anyway, Nashara escapes Pitt’s Cross and rides on an orbital skyhook and transport pod up to a space station to meet up with a group, the revolutionary League of Human Affairs, for whom she had just completed a dangerous job. The League wants to overthrow the Satrapy and achieve real freedom for humanity. But Nashara’s loyalties lie elsewhere and she has a greater mission to accomplish. Things don’t go as planned, but Nashara manages to hitch a ride on a spaceship and proceeds to be hunted in a race across the galaxy by agents of the Satrapy.

The way in which the Satraps keep humans and other races in line and under heel is illustrative of our own governments’ policies, if only people would make the connection. Earth was discovered by the Gahe and another alien race called the Nesaru, and presumably conquered and enslaved, dragged into the Satrapy involuntarily. But humans are an ornery, uppity, rebellious lot. They rebelled. But the rebellion apparently didn’t go very well. The Earth rebels settled for a deal with Satraps to cut Earth off from the rest of the galaxy by collapsing its wormhole. The human-occupied colony planet of Chimson was also cut off for declaring independence.

Aside from these cut off planets and the lost colony planet of New Anegada, the bulk of humanity — “freed” by the Emancipation — live on Satrap space habitats or on reservations on alien worlds, while only 30 million or so live relatively free scattered around the galaxy. Relatively. The Satraps hinder and monitor human communications. They control human movement by prohibiting human ships from using the wormhole routes and fueling up without licenses.

Tobias Buckell
Tobias Buckell

The Satraps also prohibit certain technologies, to prevent the subject races from growing powerful enough to challenge them. Humans are prohibited from making carbon fiber, for example. The Satraps cleverly turn humans on each other by tempting them with power, wealth, and advanced technology. In a good metaphor for how intellectual property stifles progress, innovation, and civilization, the Satraps use the Hongguo as enforcers against human technological progress. The Hongguo, formerly a merchant company, first attempt to buy patents for technological innovations that are too advanced for the Satraps’s comfort, but will resort to killing or reconditioning any humans who refuse to give up their overly advanced tech.

In Crystal Rain there was a local defense force of rangers called the Raga, short for Ragamuffins. But not all the Raga were trapped on New Anegada. Those who remained on the other side of the collapsed wormhole were branded pirates by the Satrapy. The Satraps put up with them for a while, but now the Hongguo have been tasked with eliminating them.

On the other side of a collapsed wormhole in New Anegada, or Nanagada as the natives call it, we’re reunited with familiar characters from Crystal Rain — some 10–20 years after the last events in the novel. John’s son, Jerome, is a young man now. There is peace between the Azteca and the other Nanagadans. But then the rest of the Teotl show up in a mothership and all hell breaks loose. In the process, we learn more about the origin of the Teotl and the Loa.

The momentum of events propel the central cast of characters on both sides of New Anegada’s (Nanagada’s) collapsed wormhole into a collision course, some great action, and a big reveal about Nashara’s mission. But I’ll leave the details of the story and the conclusion up to your reading please.


Before I wrap up, I’ll say a few more words about libertarian themes in the novel. Though the League of Human Affairs is a rebel organization whose goal is to free humanity by overthrowing the Satrapy, their motives are tainted by more than a touch of paleo-like xenophopia. One can’t help but wonder if they would engage in a fascist genocidal bloodbath to cleanse the galaxy of nonhuman species if given half a chance. They also have no qualms with blowing up nukes in cities and blaming the deed on innocent people (like Nashara when she inconveniently lived through what they expected to be, unbenownst to her, a suicide mission).

A few other interesting tidbits: My impression of the Teotl and Loa, discussed in the spoiler section of my Crystal Rain review, were reinforced in Ragamuffin. These two related species practice adaptive personal bio-engineering and a rather disturbing sublimation of the self to the “greater good.” Speaking of the greater good, late in the book, a reconditioned human makes a rather unconvincing argument against the rebellion that humanity will lose status and end up even lower on the gallactic totem pole than it already is; and he complains about how humans are seen as not being able to work within the system for the “greater good.” For more on the collectivist and communitarian ideal that starts with a conception of the “greater good” of some group and then proceeds to define the individual good in terms of it vs. the liberal ideal that starts with a conception of the individual good and then evaluates social institutions in light of it, see my working paper “Roman Virtue, Liberty, and Imperialism: The Murder-Suicide of Classical Civilization.”

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Finally, it is interesting to note that enterprising humans didn’t just accept the Satraps hindering and monitoring their communications. No, the plucky bastards proceeded to hack the Satrapy Information System of lamina (kind of a super internet generally accessed through implants), exploiting the inevitable bugs and carving out pockets of freedom. Tyranny and totalitarianism suffer from inherent weaknesses and will ultimately succumb to human spirit and ingenuity.


If you liked Crystal Rain and you like space opera, I think you’ll enjoy Ragamuffin. But if you’d like to sample the novel before buying, Buckell has made the first third of it available on his website in various formats for free.

4 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Matthew Alexander July 1, 2011 @ 11:44 am | Link

    Good review. Sounds like a decent series worth getting into.

    • Geoffrey Allan Plauché July 5, 2011 @ 2:54 am | Link

      Thanks, Matthew. I worry that as an academic I might have a tendency to write reviews that are too detail-oriented, spoilerific, and dry. It’s good to get feedback and I’m always looking to improve my skills as a reviewer and critic.


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