Buckell's Sly Mongoose: character-driven, exciting space opera pits space-rastas, neo-Aztecs, against the alien zombie hivemind

Tobias Buckell's Sly Mongoose is the latest in a series of fantastic space-operas that tackle big philosophical and economic questions without skimping on the gigantic battles or the thoughtful character-development. The action centers around a superhot, Venus-like planet where the residents live 100,000 feet above the surface in cloud cities. Most of the world is rich and happy, ensconced in a super-participatory democracy that uses direct brain links to vote on every substantial matter of policy, but one ethnic minority, a kind of neo-Aztecs, live in the direst poverty.

These are the descendants of a rampaging, murderous lot who were duped by cruel aliens into believing that the ancient Aztec civilization whence they descended was established by the selfsame alien gods, who had chosen them to lead, and who demanded blood sacrifice in return. Once the gods were revealed as liars and cheats (by a force of Caribbean-descended warriors called the Ragamuffins), the disgraced neo-Aztecs renounced their faith and moved to the cloud-world.

Now a fallen civilization, they rely on ancient, half-working machinery to extract the ores that keep their power-systems humming, machinery that can only be maintained by young, bulemic boys, the only ones slender enough to fit into the surface-suits that were designed for ancestors who had access to metabolic technology that let them strut about with the stretched-out bodies of elves.

Civilization is disrupted when Pepper, a near-immortal Ragamuffin, plunges through the atmosphere in an improvised re-entry vehicle, puncturing the floating city's dome and killing one of the boy maintenance workers. By that's just the start of their problems: Pepper comes with a warning of a new bioweapon unleashed on their corner of space by the arrogant, distant human alliance — a bioweapon called The Swarm that turns its hosts into shambling, semi-telepathic zombies who form a huge neural net that gets smarter the more people they bite.

Sly Mongoose has enough science and speculation for three books, with swashbuckling set-pieces that include airship battles, vividly described infantry action on a grand scale, mad inventors and their analog-computer-based autonomous ornithopters, pirates, alliances, betrayals, alien races, and so forth.

But Sly Mongoose is also a novel of character and philosophy, where people we care about make hard decisions that challenge who they are and re-shape them. Besides Pepper, there's Timas, an adolescent maintenance worker; Katerina, another adolescent who is the avatar for her hyper-democratic civilization, and a host of secondary characters, none of whom is ever relegated to mere spear-carrier.

The story presents us with several different versions of consent, coercion, democracy and cooperation, using the author's contrived situation to stage a nuanced, fascinating debate about the ethics of different kinds of collective action, one that raises lots of hard questions without offering any simple answers.

I've had the pleasure of reading every one of Toby Buckell's excellent novels, and of blurbing one or two of them, and not only have I never been let down by one of them, I've also always been delighted to find each book even better than the last, as a prodigious young talent unfolds and discovers itself.

Sly Mongoose on Amazon

Update: Josh sez, "Toby is currently in the ER for a heart issue. Send good thoughts."