Friday, May 17, 2024

Book Review: Warped State by Jo Miles

A space opera that puts a burgeoning queer interspecies relationship front and center.

Jasper Wilder has a number of problems, but he has an interesting job as a result of them. He suffers from the pollution on his marginal homeworld, Brennex, by a rapacious corporation, and as a result he has a minor psychic gift. He’s lucky that his gift to see the relationships between people is not in a more debilitating form like some of his family, who cannot stand crowds and large groups of people as a result. Jasper works for an organization, the Cooperative, that opposes the exploitation of planets by companies like Ravel. When there is word that a different planet, Artesia, is possibly being used to manufacture chemicals that might be similar to the ones that poisoned Brennex, Jasper swings into action.

Meanwhile, Sowing of Small Havoc, a reptilian-like humanoid Kovar, works for the very same corporation that spoiled Jasper’s world, and on the very same planet that Jasper is being sent to. Sowing of Small Havoc thinks that things could be better for workers and the corporation alike if people work together. He’s tried to “work within the system” to better himself and others in the company, only to be stonewalled, dismissed and slapped down time and again. He may have a hard head, but beating his head against the wall is getting him nowhere. But his efforts, even if he doesn’t quite realize what he is reaching for, have not been unnoticed.

Until of course, Jasper arrives on the scene and introduces Sowing to a whole new galaxy, and a whole new perspective. But opposing a corporation and its plans will not be easy. And so a meeting, and a story is told, in Jo Miles’ Warped State.

Let's talk about the world for a moment. NeoFeudalistic Corporations dominating planets in a space opera setting, complete with intrigue and plans that just exemplify late-stage capitalism. Queer friendly characters (in point of fact, the world feels like it’s queernorm, period). The novel doesn’t focus on the technology (just how space drive or FTL communications work are a bit handwavy. This isn’t a book that is terribly interested in the nuts and bolts of its world and how they work.

What this book is interested in, much more, are the social aspects of Miles’ universe. I am not just talking about the relationship that emerges between Sower and Jasper, although that’s a part of it. This is a socially-oriented book in the same ways and reasons that, say, Alex Acks’ Hunger Makes the Wolf is. It’s interested in the relationship between corporations and people, and what happens when that relationship turns exploitative and rapacious. What is justified? What is right and necessary as a response? In a Leninist mode: what is to be done?

Our other major point of view gives us a window into that. Besides Jasper and Sower, the other point of view in this book, Grist. Grist is a special operative for Ravel, and is being sent to Artesia because of Sower’s efforts. While Sower isn’t aware, until Jasper arrives, that he is laying the groundwork for labor power, Ravel is not going to take chances. Grist is there, in a fashion similar to around the beginning of the 20th century to stop this in the bud. He is the union-buster, sent in by the company to help out the company town and stamp out any organization efforts.

Grist is portrayed without any sympathy whatsoever, we are introduced to him being a jerk to his own autonomous ship, and his portrayal and depiction gathers no nuance whatsoever. While Sower and Jasper are shown to have nuance, struggle and complexity in their emotions, moods and thinking, Grist is a force of nature, a weapon employed by Ravel. Sure, he has little tolerance and low opinion of other people in Ravel, but there is a lack of any breadth of character here. He is simply there as an opponent, rather than a point of view to consider at all. Would Grist have approved of what Rockefeller did in Ludlow in 1914? Undoubtedly.

A late 19th century labor struggle fight is a good model and lens to look through the events of this novel, even if it takes place on an alien planet, far away. As I said before, the tech doesn’t matter so much, and the chemicals that Ravel may be making are very much a MacGuffin. This is a story of a factory town and the struggles its workers suffer under. One could be extremely reductionist and see Sower and the Kovar through a lens of Critical Race Theory, since it seems certain that the Kovar are being deliberately kept to lower ranks within the company. The higher ranks of workers, to say nothing of the executives, are all human. But Miles makes it clear that it is not just the Kovar, but all the workers without stock options that are ultimately harmed by Ravel’s rapaciousness. It’s a class and race (species) lens to look at what corporations do to people, and places, in the pursuit of profit.

What drives this book is the Jasper-Sower relationship, how it begins, how it faces challenges, how they are driven apart and how they come together. These beats and structure seem, to me, to be borrowed to some degree from romance novels, but I wouldn’t personally call it a romance, per se. It’s a space opera that leans in that direction and takes cues and notes from romance, but in the end, it is a secondary adjunct, not the main thrust of the story and the world. Judging from the series title, and the focus of the world and plot, this really is, as mentioned before, a story about the power of labor and corporations, and the consequences of unfettered power by corporations, with a huge side dish of a fraught relationship slowly being developed. Although beyond the remit of this review, looking at the plot summaries of the subsequent two books in this series seems to bear out that the struggle against corporate power is the through line to take here. That doesn’t minimize those looking for a queer relationship and queer representation, mind you.

One neat little bit of worldbuilding that we do get that feels really relevant in this age of AI in search results is how our antagonist manipulates the information available to Sowing. As Sowing, in his small and baby-steps way, tries to learn more about community organizing and organization, Grist is right there to skew the results to only show him the negative results and consequences of collective bargaining, unionization and allied ideas. Sower has no idea that what he thinks is free and fair information is, in fact, being put through a harshly negative perspective and bias.

Finally, there is definitely an optimism to the book. This is a book where the struggle and difficulties are real, and large, but they are not insurmountable. Tyranny, oppression and terrible policies and actions by large entities can be opposed and countered and defeated. In some ways as a reader, I may be more cynical than the book’s world about the chances Sower and Jasper have to effect change and how their actions drive change, but the optimism of this book is, if not infectious for me, personally, certainly appreciated as a refreshing alternative.

Miles, to me, is clearly taking cues and inspiration (and is mentioned as such in the acknowledgement) from Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. There is also a secret character that emerges in the narrative whom I do not want to discuss, and instead will let the reader discover for themselves. But that character, too, is definitely part and parcel of a Martha Wells-like universe. I don’t know if the author has read any Stina Leicht, her novels may be too new to be an influence on the work, but Leicht’s space opera also takes a drink from the same waters as Wells does (and so here, Miles) but goes in a very different direction with them. That is part of the joy of this novel, above and beyond its own virtues. It shows an enthusiasm for a new class of space opera and science fiction. The genre conversation continues to evolve in very good ways.

I am delighted that we are getting new crops of SF novels that are taking cues from recent and more diverse winners and acclaimed works, and accelerating and amplifying their diversity with their own spins, takes and evolutions on their predecessors. For a long time in the genre, the classics being held up as models has led to a lot “more of the same”, but those old defaults and old paradigms are shifting. This is a good thing.


The Math

  • Queernorm, positivist, optimistic space opera
  • Strong focus on labor, unions, labor power and the perils of corporate malfeasance
  • A hallmark of a new crop of SF novels taking cues from newer models.

Reference: Miles, Jo, Warped State, [Self Published, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.