Book Review: The Kassa Gambit
by M. C. Planck
Tor Books, 2013
Pity the poor sci-fi/fantasy author, especially a debut author, trying to break into a genre that’s not only reflexively dismissed by the New Criterion crowd as just so much juvenile nonsense but also one that’s dominated by a handful of big-name authors busily working on spinning out endless books-in-series (the sendup in Steve Hely ‘s great satire of the writing world, How I Became a Famous Novelist, is spot-on: “Sageknights of Darkhorn: Astrid Soulblighter attempts to reclaim the throne from the wicked Scarkrig clan. The fifteenth volume of the ‘Bloodrealms’ saga”)
It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, an author like M. C. Planck, whose quick, lean debut The Kassa Gambit is out this month from Tor, would have had a field of choices – and of chances. The book would have premiered as a $1.95 paperback, not a positively indecent $25 hardcover (as one long-time sci-fi aficionado one complained to me, “How are you supposed to justify taking a gamble on a new author, for money like that?”) in Timescape or Del Rey and might have had a chance to grab an audience, since all books look equal on a metal spinner-rack at the drugstore.
Instead, what’s the most likely fate for The Kassa Gambit and dozens of books like it? A few weeks propped up in the “New Arrivals’ section of Barnes & Noble, then an oblivion perhaps only infinitesimally relieved by an honorable mention in the small print of Gardner Dozois’ next anthology, or a few extra years of life as a hopeful library book. Had the thing been offered as a neat little $6 paperback, thousands of sci-fi fans would have taken that gamble. As it is, less will.
In this case they’ll be missing a good thing. Planck’s debut opens with a premise so outlandish for the genre that it just may be true in real life: mankind seems to be the only intelligent life in the universe. The species has long since exhausted the resources of Earth and moved out to the stars, colonizing dozens of worlds under the governmental leadership of the League. It looks like humans have all of creation to themselves – until the minding-its-own business farming world of Kassa is attacked from space by a mysterious marauder unlike anything mankind has seen before.
When the survivors put out a distress call, two very different people respond: Captain Prudence Falling (yeesh) of the scrappy little freighter Ulysses and Lieutenant Kyle Daspar, a police from the advanced world of Altair Prime. While these two are helping Kassa’s survivors, they discover hard evidence that the planet’s attackers were not only marauders but alien marauders – an astonishing fact Prudence has clarified by Dr. Jandi, Altair’s leading expert on alienology, who points out that “it’s hard making a really good fake, because it’s hard making anything good” and looks at the proof:
The aliens are real, yes. The blood you gave me does not match any genotype in our catalogs. Of course, we can’t unwrap the genetic code and reconstruct the creature, despite what the popular vids would have you think. Genes express over time and through environment, and we have no clue what gene does what. Or, for that matter, which bits are actually genes.
But although the aliens are real, the devastation they wrought on Kassa – and the threat they represent to the League – aren’t entirely their own doing; as in all the best sci-fi stories, there’s a traitor in humanity’s midst. Planck expertly weaves plots and counter-plots as Prudence and Kyle work separate trails to figure out what’s going on, Prudence consulting with Dr. Jandi and Kyle at one point visiting the high-gravity world of Baharain (the novel has, to put it mildly, some feints at present-day headlines), where he’s given brusque instructions by an instructor who wants all his charges to remember that “heavy G is the enemy – forget that for one microsecond and you’ll be a debit in my paycheck”:
Every step you take is a fifth harder. Every drop you fall is a fifth longer. Everything you pick up is a fifth heavier. All of them fifths add up fast, in ways your idiot brains didn’t evolve to handle. You can’t operate by instinct out there. Every single action has to be consciously evaluated before you do it. You will burn calories you didn’t know you had. You will strain muscles they ain’t even named in the medical vids. If you try to act like you’re in normal G, your suit’s air-cracker will not be able to keep up oxygen production, and you will pass out. This is for your own good. An unconscious idiot is cheaper than a dead one. We can fix your air, but we can’t fix your heart if it bursts a chamber.
The plot moves along quickly and efficiently – it’s hard to believe this is Planck’s first book – and when it’s all over, the reader has consumed a very tasty science fiction snack (the typically gorgeous Greg Manchess cover acting as the dessert). Readers who don’t mind paying $25 for that snack are encouraged to do so.