The Hostile Takeover Trilogy
S. Andrew Swann
Challenging times ahead, as we attempt to unpack Andrew Swann’s complicated vision. Nonetheless, I hold fast to my belief that I can safely guide the good ship Two Dudes into port, without running aground on the shoals of literary criticism. Actually, I am more challenged by trying to figure out how this thing made its way onto my official Goodreads Want to Read list. Where did I hear about it? I’m guessing that the Coode Street Podcast is responsible, but it could have been someone’s random post about space opera, somewhere in the wilds of the SF community. I really can’t remember. Whoever it was, thank you for turning me on to something I would never have thought to read.
What is so difficult to assess here? Well, my first reaction when picking this up from the library was, “Holy crap, this is 900 pages long?” I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the “trilogy” part of the title, but it was still intimidating. That is a shallow concern though. A look at this Big Idea, on John Scalzi’s blog, explains a bit more about what gives Hostile Takeover its depth. Swann describes the series as “libertarian-noir space opera,” which is probably the best description anyone will ever find. There’s no shortage of these themes out there in singles or pairs, but this is perhaps the first tripartite combination I have found. Swann says that his main goal was to “write about a realistic anarchy,” which is not necessarily an easy thing to do when one is supposedly trying to “entertain” or “become really famous.”
Of course, the L-word there is going to set off some alarms. Rest assured that this is no paean to Ayn Rand. (Longtime readers will probably have a good idea of just how long I would last with that sort of book.) The book’s main stage, the planet Bakunin, is indeed thoroughly libertarian, with nary a government hand to distort economies, repress freedoms, or do whatever it is governments do when they’re not building roads or amassing armies. Swann won’t be winning any Prometheus Awards with Hostile Takeover though; Bakunin is, by his admission, “more like Somalia with venture capital.” (Again, these quotes are all from the Big Idea.) Sure enough, it’s a strange mix of Gibsonesque cities, hippie communes, rapacious corporations, and plenty more weirdness. The practical result of this dedicated world building is a complex sandbox for his characters to play in, one that will make demands of the reader rather than smooth the way to action set pieces with familiar tropes and easily digested, but generic and forgettable nuggets.
Things don’t stop at Bakunin. As various outside forces converge on the planet in a bid to impose order, broader political currents in the multi-stellar Confederation swirl into view. Swann creates the macro and micro here, with the focus alternating between the details of life on Bakunin and the clash of super powered factions that will alter the fates of entire worlds. It’s almost a waste to spend so much time on a single planet, when there are galaxy-wide economic and racial fault lines to explore, questions of proper governance and Machiavellian scheming on a grand scale to answer, and tantalizing hints of historical secrets and looming revolution to speculate upon. There are also money grubbing religious freaks in power armor, which is probably enough to drop the mic right there.
And yet, this is a closeup, personal story. The noir part of the triangle focuses on a few characters, most of them with dark and mysterious pasts. There is fratricide and unrequited love, orbital bombardment and hacking, and everything in between. I half expected some of these people to break into arias at any moment, considering the operatic pathos on display, especially the pair of brothers. Even when the action moves outward into the Confederation, we still see it from a limited set of eyes, though the sets of eyes generally belong to the powerful. Befitting the political nature of the story, many of the non-Bakunin characters are politicians. Those on the planet are more likely to be the sorts of people one would expect to find in an anarchy: hackers, mercenaries, outcasts, and heretics. There is a certain amount of angst, sometimes enough to overpower the narrative, but this is generally balanced by the overall butt kicking quotient that people deal out.
We’ve gone this far without ever really mentioning the story. In good noir fashion, things are thoroughly convoluted. It’s clear from the outset that the initial military action is just an opening gambit, but the wheels within wheels extend far beyond what anyone inside the story expects. By the end, it’s not even clear who the prime operative was, which I suppose keeps things all the more amusing. The plot moves at the behest of the political machinations, rather than as any sort of character-driven narrative, but there are nods to agency and the individual. I don’t know that there is a message of any sort buried inside, since this is more of a world building exercise than a compelling peek at the human condition. Characters are there and fleshed out, but I came away with a greater appreciation for the Confederation and how it works. Some people might be turned off by this, but I think they shouldn’t be. Political science and economics are fun.
So to sum up, this is a very long book, or three medium-sized books, that will probably appeal to SF readers like me. Hostile Takeover is not a breezy read, nor is it particularly optimistic or cheery. There’s lots to think about and lots of detail to enjoy. As far as I can tell, Swann remains under the popular radar, but this is worth searching out for those that want some meat in their book diet.