If there's anything better than a ninja fighting zombies, it's a ninja with alien-tech-enhanced powers nuking space zombies infected by a plague of collective murderous consciousness. And I haven't even gotten to the part about floating cities on a Venus-like planet covered in sulfur-specked clouds. That's the beauty of Tobias Buckell's latest novel, Sly Mongoose, out this month from Tor Books. Just when you think the action can't get more insane, it does. Even better: Just when you think you're reading a pure military SF adventure, Buckell gives you a wide-angle shot of the larger political context where the alien smackdown is blowing up, and takes your breath away.
The third novel in Buckell's series about a group of space-going humans descended from Earth's Caribbean cultures, Sly Mongoose is set in the wake of a human rebellion against alien colonizers. These aliens believed it was their "burden" to help humans shed their "savage ways" via enslavement and mind-control, and have finally been beaten back by a group of elite human fighters called the Mongoose Men (though many are women).
But now a new alien threat haunts the human planets. A mysterious plague has hit cargo ship on its way to Chilo, a planet where over a dozen cities float in the upper levels of a dense, high-pressure atmosphere of poisonous clouds and burning surface temperatures. The plague, spread via biting, turns humans into zombie-like creatures who communicate via transmitters that grow out of their necks and cause them to merge into a collective mental entity. Luckily a seasoned Mongoose named Pepper happens to be on board that cargo ship, and manages to escape (though not after an awesome, bloody battle). He shoots himself into Chilo's atmosphere in the hopes of reaching a city where he can raise the alarm and call for reinforcements before the plague spreads.
Pepper crash-lands on Yatapek, one of Chilo's poorest floating cities, and that's where things get really interesting. Buckell isn't content to give us a human-on-alien war that's spectacular in its technological scope. He wants to ground that war in a social reality whose roots go back present-day Earth, where the differences between rich and poor are often greater than between friend and foe on the battlefield.
While many of Chilo's cities are technological marvels where everyone has brain implants that wire them directly to an augmented reality system, Yatapek is struggling to survive off biodome farms and tech that's over a century old. The city makes money from a small mining operation and tourism. Most of its residents live in layers of favelas sandwiched between industrial factories. How will Pepper ever hold off a sophisticated alien zombie threat from a city whose resources are so meager?
Eventually Pepper strikes up an unlikely partnership with one of Yatapek's young mining equipment operators, Timas, who has seen what he believes is an alien roving the supposedly-dead surface of Chilo. This alien could become the key to understanding the zombie threat. Together with a representative from the techno-democratic "consensus" of Chilo's richer cities, Pepper and Timas hatch a plan to hold off the zombies, save the planet, and kick some alien ass. In the process, they fight pirates, uncover dark extraterrestrial secrets, and engage in a giant air battle so exciting that the only way to describe it is to yell "fucking cool!" in your best high-on-Mountain-Dew voice.
In many ways, Sly Mongoose has a deceptively simple plot. The novel's thoughtfulness becomes more apparent each time Buckell invites us into the social systems of Chilo's cities. Never preachy or heavy-handed, Sly Mongoose nevertheless tells a powerful story of post-colonial peoples fighting desperately for their freedom from an alien force that wants to co-opt rather than kill them.Sly Mongoose