By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 27, 2015
M.C. Planck’s 2012 debut novel, The Kassa Gambit, is an enjoyable piece of science fiction escapism.
The book’s main characters are Prudence Falling, captain and owner of the independent interstellar freighter Ulysses, and Kyle Daspar, a politically connected municipal policeman on the wealthy planet of Altair.
As the story opens, Falling and her three-man crew are on a routine cargo run that goes horribly wrong. They arrive at their destination, a remote, sparsely populated farm world named Kassa, days after an unknown force has bombed every city, town and building into oblivion. What’s more, the marauders seeded nearby space with a set of deadly torpedoes (which the characters refer to as mines — a minor quibble, but there we are).
After Falling’s crew disables the torpedo targeting Ulysses and makes landfall, they find themselves called upon to aid thousands of survivors, a task they barely have the resources to even begin to attempt:
Prudence met the man at the boarding hatch. Standing at the top of the gangway gave her power, rendered him a supplicant at the foot of the throne. A simple trick, but it had worked on more than one dockside petty official.
“Thank Earth you’re here,” the man said.
“Captain Prudence Falling of the Ulysses,” she introduced herself. The formalities were there for a purpose. They gave structure to the negotiations, reminded everyone exactly where they stood. “And you are?”
“Grayson James.” There was no argument in his voice, only despair. “A pumpkin farmer. Or I was. Until we were attacked.”
“Attacked by who?” Garcia whispered fiercely from where he was hiding behind a bulkhead. “It freaking matters, don’t you think?”
It did matter, rather a lot. Knowing which planet launched the attack would tell them where to flee. “By who?”
“Burn Earth if I know. The bombs just fell out of the air. No warning. If I hadn’t been out in the field, trying to fix an irrigation line, I’d be dead with the rest of my family. They dropped a bomb right on my house, Captain. They aimed for us.”
“And those people?” Some of the crowd coming out of the woods were carrying weapons, but they no longer looked dangerous.
“Refugees and survivors. We haven’t eaten right for a week. Too afraid to go near town for any supplies that might be usable. They didn’t leave right away, captain. They stayed and hunted us for days. We only figured it was safe now because you weren’t already dead.”
“Nice that you were thinking of us,” she said, but without heat. She would have done the same in their shoes. “You set the beacon?”
“Yes. And the seven before it. This is the first time a bomb didn’t fall out of the sky on it.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Someone in the crowd answered with a shout. “Get us out of here!”
The Ulysses was a freighter, not a passenger liner. Its life support couldn’t keep a hundred people alive for the four-day trip through node-space to the next colony, let alone the long journey to Altair.
Chance of a sort intervenes when Daspar shows up aboard an Altairian patrol ship that he has commandeered based upon a mysterious tip. After the two vessels begin coordinating their efforts, Ulysses stumbles upon a mysterious wreck indicating that Kassa was attacked by an alien intelligence — something that humans have never before found in their galactic travels.
Falling and Daspar part ways, but neither can let go of their suspicion that a human group arranged to have the innocuous farm planet attacked in order to advance a malevolent agenda. (The fact that someone tries to kill Daspar goes a long way toward confirming this notion.) Their separate investigations, along with their paths, converge on a distant world, which should surprise exactly nobody who’s been paying attention to that point in the book. The duo team up, and events proceed apace from there.
The premise and plot of The Kassa Gambit vaguely reminded me of “The Conspiracy,” which I remember as being one of the few truly good episodes from the inaugural season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The main character and her ship (and, to a lesser extent, her crew) bear a strong resemblance to those of Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly, although obviously the captain’s gender has been flipped. That said, the universe of The Kassa Gambit isn’t the lone solar system that was the setting of Whedon’s excellent, short-lived series but instead a colonized galaxy like that of Jack McDevitt’s novels, particularly the Alex Benedict sequence.
Planck also sets up some interesting political analogues, with Altair seeming to represent a decadent United States and the League, the shadowy political organization that is rapidly encroaching on Altairian democracy, appearing to stand in for the Nazi Party. Others might argue that the League symbolizes the contemporary Republican Party, which has been very eager to pursue foreign adventures, and which remains so, despite recent experience; still others would insist that the League’s fascistic tendencies line up nicely with libtards’ supposed desire to quash free speech and to force men to marry one another.
At any rate, The Kassa Gambit has a few decent characters and some interesting scientific and social ideas. Shakespeare — or Clarke or Asimov — this ain’t, but this book is a fun read. Planck’s second and third novels seem to mix science fiction and fantasy, which means I’m unlikely to try them. But if he ventures back onto more solidly science-fictional ground, I’d probably give him another go.