Science fiction suffers from a constraint that Fantasy escapes: namely, the suffocating blanket of civilization.
Having your wizards and knights wander off the beaten track and discover a eons-old artifact lying around in a cave, or perhaps an entire civilization of weird monsters, elicits not so much as a twitch of an eyebrow. The scholars of a fantasy world spend their time studying dusty archives in ancient libraries, just as we imagined the monks of yore did. Exploring is only for the brave, the dispossessed, or the quest-infected.
But in science fiction, the scholars are replaced by scientists. How could that mysterious artifact not already have been the subject of some eager young PHD’s thesis? And how can whole societies escape the penetrating gaze of radar, thermal imaging, and modern marketing research?
The classic SF solution is deep space: the planets are separated by gulfs of void, and the intrepid explorers sail in uncharted seas, like Columbus. Except, those intrepid explorers always seem to be only a few days away from the nearest starbase (Star Trek Voyager excepted), so really, why are our heroes the first ones on the scene? Although Serenity is one of my favorite films, I have to put my suspension of disbelief in suspenders when Captain Mal flies from the Reaver’s secret home planet to the heart of the intergalactic internet in less time than he usually spends delivering cows.
And even the Age of Sail was less mysterious than we remember it; the average life expectancy of a pirate in the golden age was eight months. Despite the lack of radio, radar, or propellers, the English Royal Navy routinely learned about, hunted down, and executed rogue adventurers.
Writers sometimes respond to this by making the distances traveled so vast and difficult that no one else would make the journey. Unfortunately this usually begs the question of why the protagonists are making the journey. Who funded this unlikely exploration into deep space for no good reason, and why do we care about the antics of a lunatic? (Prometheus, I’m looking at you!)
Jack Vance took a middle road: he is justly famous for his bizarre planetary societies, and he sells their quirkiness with the same conviction he sells his character’s quirks. The effort of traveling between space is like going to Greece; not so difficult an ordinary person can’t do it, but trouble enough that when you get there, you can expect different customs and laws. He has, however, the Beyond, where his villains live: the edges of civilization where anything goes, like the old Wild West (which of course, actually was never that wild, and only lasted from the Gold Rush of 1846 to Transcontinental railroad 1869).
The writers of Stargate developed a brilliant alternative: by limiting travel to predefined gates, exploration was limited to whatever idea the writer wanted to talk about that week. This all went to pot once they had their own spaceships, so much so that the next iteration (Stargate: Universe) had the ship’s controls locked down.
Lacking Vance’s mastery, I went with the Stargate model. The world of THE KASSA GAMBIT is determined, in no small part, by capricious nature: the nodes that tie the planets together are arbitrary and irrational. Humanity lives on this web like an archipelago, with neighboring islands sharing cultural ties that gradually fade with every discrete step. The key that makes it work is the absence of instant communication; like the Fantasy kingdoms, news travels only at the pace of the fastest traveler. This leaves room for mystery even while it makes interstellar travel accessible to my ordinary heroes.
The Kassa Gambit
The Kassa Gambit
Tor Books, January 8, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 288 pages
Centuries after the ecological collapse of Earth, humanity has spread among the stars. Under the governance of the League, our endless need for resources has driven us to colonize hundreds of planets, all of them devoid of other sentient life. Humanity is apparently alone in the universe.
Then comes the sudden, brutal decimation of Kassa, a small farming planet, by a mysterious attacker. The few survivors send out a desperate plea for aid, which is answered by two unlikely rescuers. Prudence Falling is the young captain of a tramp freighter. She and her ragtag crew have been on the run and living job to job for years, eking out a living by making cargo runs that aren’t always entirely legal. Lt. Kyle Daspar is a police officer from the wealthy planet of Altair Prime, working undercover as a double agent against the League. He’s been undercover so long he can't be trusted by anyone—even himself.
While flying rescue missions to extract survivors from the surface of devastated Kassa, they discover what could be the most important artifact in the history of man: an alien spaceship, crashed and abandoned during the attack.
But something tells them there is more to the story. Together, they discover the cruel truth about the destruction of Kassa, and that an imminent alien invasion is the least of humanity’s concerns.
About M.C. Planck
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