M.C. Planck, The Kassa Gambit, ISBN: 9780765330925, Tor, January 2013.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Planck seems like an auspicious name for a science fiction novelist. With The Kassa Gambit, his debut, Australian-based M.C. Planck presents an auspicious if flawed start to his career.
The Kassa Gambit is a novel in the mode of adventure space opera. It opens with action: a freighter captain on descent to an agrarian planet bombarded by mysterious attackers. When Captain Prudence Falling has her ship commandeered by police lieutenant Kyle Daspar to fly rescue missions, they find what may be the most important discovery in the history of human civilisation: a crashed alien spacecraft, abandoned during the attack. But there’s far more to the story than an alien menace, and in their own ways, both Prudence and Kyle will be drawn into investigating the cover-ups and conspiracies – and potential coups – to which their chance discovery proves central. Are there inimical aliens on the verge of invasion? Or are humans their own worst enemies?
That could, of course, easily be a question which answers itself. But Planck resists an easy answer — at least, to the Alien Question.
The Kassa Gambit has numerous points of appeal. Prudence is an intriguing, well-developed character: an independent captain, something of an outlaw, whose relationship with her crew is full of nuance and whose reasons for involvement in a quixotic quest to uncover the truth make emotional sense. Planck shows us the edges of a complex and expansive universe in which the social and political world never feels like a cardboard set that might collapse if you look at it too hard. The individual planets, physically, feel distinct: they have landscape, a dimension sadly lacking in many other space operas. The politics of Kyle Daspar’s homeworld of Altair Prime, too, despite some leaps of implication, likewise feel three-dimensional. The dominant party in its politics, the pseudo-fascist League which Daspar so dislikes that he’s dedicated his life to secretly undermining it from within, is manifestly a plausible, if somewhat predictable, monster.
What, then, of the novel’s flaws? Every debut has its share, and in Planck’s case, it’s a slight fondness for over-complication and hidden secrets for their own sake. The world of The Kassa Gambit is expansive and revealed through incluing and dropped hints, yes: but it could have stood a bit more actual exposition to bring it more clearly into focus, particularly with regard to the Mysterious Tragic Past of Prudence Falling (for which capitalisation does seem indicated).
In contrast to Prudence, with her secrets in her past and fully developed relationships with other humans, Daspar comes across as rather blandly forgettable. His eventual romantic connection with Prudence, the culmination of the arc of their reluctant-friendship/forced alliance, strikes me as flat, weak, unearned and insipid. It’s a lazy piece of character evolution, that appears more to replicate an internalised pattern of male-female relationships than arise organically from the text.
Another piece of thoughtlessness is the deployment of sexual threat to heighten tension directed at Prudence when our two protagonists are captured together by their enemies. The threat of rape is so much a part of the background to female narratives both lived and fictional that it seems hardly worth notice, almost part of the air we breathe. But sometimes one must point out that it’s a foul miasma and a pattern that needs breaking. In science fiction, it denotes a lack of imagination for less gendered ways of driving threat and tension.
I don’t intend to excoriate The Kassa Gambit for its flaws. Despite these criticisms, it remains a very promising debut in a mode which I greatly enjoy: its sensibility reminds me in many ways of Timothy Zahn.
The conclusion leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but even if no sequel is forthcoming, I look forward to seeing how M.C. Planck develops as a writer in years to come.