Rating: 7.9 (out of 10)
For all its potential as an outlet for progressive thought, mainstream science fiction only occasionally takes up the issue of labor rights. Notable examples are few and far between: in the movies we have Lang’s Metropolis, a genuine masterpiece, and Blomkamp’s Elysium, which is genuinely not; H.G. Wells classic novel The Time Machine practically hits you over the head with its class struggle allegory, but is effective nonetheless; Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy hits you over the head too, but for all its good intentions comes across as clumsy and adolescent.
Among the genre’s current literary practitioners, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Macleod and a few others deal directly with economic and class conflicts in their work, and while those authors have created some stellar works, I don’t think any of them have made labor and class conflict feel quite as personal as Alex Wells does in Hunger Makes the Wolf. The Acknowledgments and the end of the book are unabashed in expressing Wells’ affiliations: pride in their father’s stewardship of the local Communication Workers union, in their home state of Colorado’s historical importance in the struggle for worker’s rights, and their signing off bluntly with the slogan “The union makes us strong.” Even after having experienced the novel’s impassioned and poignant depiction of the indignities of labor exploitation under the heel of predatory capitalism, the audaciousness of the declaration stands out.
Lest you think Wells’ intent is to lecture, let me be clear that Hunger Makes the Wolf is first and foremost an action story about a mercenary biker gang on a planet that gives people witch powers. Labor issues are central to the novel’s thematic architecture, but entertainment is the goal. The plot follows Hob Ravani, member of the Ghost Wolves (the above-mentioned biker gang) and adopted daughter of Nick Ravani, the Wolves leader. When Nick’s brother is found dead, long simmering tensions between the planet’s (called Tanegawa’s World) ore miners and the massive corporation that treats them little better than slaves boil to the surface. The Ghost Wolves, always a muscle for hire outfit, are drawn in to the conflict out of familial obligation and loyalty to their working-class roots.
The McGuffin is a newly discovered ore that has the company, TransRifts, Inc., so beside themselves that they are willing to completely disregard worker safety to obtain it. Early in the novel, a disaster at one of the mines sets the plot into motion, and establishes the main dramatic conflict between the company and the miners. The fully preventable cave-in comes on the heels of an earlier accident in the same new vein, and it is made clear that TransRifts favors their bottom line over the lives of their workers, and even their own “company men”:
He’d heard the pit boss complaining about the expense of repairing the machinery after even limited use, but getting the mine back online again outweighed that cost. That was the reason sweat and muscle dug the shafts, and most of the conveyers were powered by teams of oxen. Blood and sweat was cheaper than electricity and shielding and the maintenance on finicky mining equipment that worked just fine on every planet but this one. None of the miners complained about that fact; it meant they had steady if dangerous work that fed their families.
It is shortly after this that the murder of Nick’s brother, Phil, shifts the plot into second gear. Phil’s death appears to be connected to the new ore, and his daughter Mag – Hob’s childhood best friend – has gone missing. With the help of the shaman-like Bone Collector, Hob discovers Mag has been abducted by TransRifts and subjected to torturous interrogation by one of the company’s mysterious Weathermen, the not-quite human beings responsible for their monopoly on Interstellar travel. The ore is likely connected to what the locals call the “witchiness” and the company calls the “contamination”; the planet seems to imbue a small percentage of the population with extrasensory abilities. Hob, Nick, and the Bone Collector all have the witchiness, but TransRifts wants to exploit the source of this power for their own gain while preventing the planet’s other inhabitants from reaping its benefits, and considers witchy people a threat that needs to be eliminated.
Wells, a pseudonym for geologist Alex Acks, excels at creating memorable characters and a memorable planet for them to inhabit. They have a tough, punchy prose style that lends itself to action:
The sound of rifles was replaced by the bark of bigger guns, bullets raining down from the guard towers. Hob half twisted on her bike, trying to keep her weight steady and her path straight as she fired at the floodlights on the tower. Two went out in a shower of sparks. Then she ducked her head as the trail of tracers moved toward her, swerving out as wide as she could in the all-too narrow street. She ran up onto the boardwalk, ducking below several awnings and low-hanging signs. Synthetic wood shredded around her; glass cracked and shattered.
These scenes are quick and frantic, a flurry of jabs and counterjabs cumulating in one big final blow. It’s a style equally effective at relating emotional violence, particularly in the unusual father-daughter dynamic between Nick and Hob.
It’s not hard to recognize some similarities to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the premise: desert planet containing a substance that alters the people exposed to it, conflicts between corporate interests and the common people. But Wells subverts Herbert’s more institution-friendly thematic framework: instead of depicting society’s power structures as a struggle between benevolent and malevolent elites fighting for supremacy, there is only the callous and destructive self-interest of corporate hegemony; religious fanatics are not righteous insurgents looking to overthrow the evil secular order, but rather a tool the capitalist overlords exploit to keep the people in line and stamp out dissent; Hob’s goal is not a restoration of the father’s will, as Paul Atreides’ was – circumstances, and her own instincts, force her to carve her own path.
Hunger Makes the Wolf follows the recent trend of “first in a series” novels that behave like television pilots, leaving a host of questions and plot threads dangling, and piling on teases for future installments. This places a huge burden on the reader’s goodwill (particularly when the second installment is not yet available) and creates some structural problems and uneven pacing, particularly in the last half of the book. The climax is exciting, though, and satisfying enough to overcome the novel’s mild faults. This is a book and a series worth investing your time in.