Book review: Planetside by Michael Mammay

Planetside is a mixed bag.  On one hand, Mammay has a refreshingly new spin at the prevailing military science fiction tropes, but on the other I found the writing and the characters a little jarring.  This was a worthy and interesting read, but I wasn’t as excited about the book as I would have expected to be, given the reviews I’ve read before purchasing the book.  Still, fans of procedural crime drama may find Planetside to their liking.

In a distant future, mankind is discovering new planets and either mining materials there or colonizing them.  If the planets support life, it’s bad news for native species, as the humans dispose of them one way or another.  The planet Cappa is somewhat unique, in that the dominant species is intelligent and capable of communicating with the invading soldiers.  As a result, the war of extermination has turned into a quagmire similar to Vietnam or Afghanistan, where the relatively small invading force relies on a divide and conquer strategy for the natives.

Colonel Butler, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is sent to a military base orbiting the planet to investigate the disappearance of a Lieutenant Malloy, the son of a prominent politician.  Once on the base, Butler runs into stonewalling and active sabotage of his investigation.  Despite all these challenges he slowly draws closer to the truth, but needs to continue his investigation on the planet’s surface where Malloy was last seen.  There, his convoy gets ambushed and he needs to fight his way out.  He tries to access the military base where he believes Malloy is kept once more, only to run into an ambush that costs most of his team their lives.  In the process, however, he uncovers a massive conspiracy, which Malloy is part of, which has the potential to threaten mankind across the universe, and Butler needs to make a decision on how to handle the threat.

This is less a military science fiction than a procedural crime drama.  The investigation, and in fact the entire mood of the book, reminded me most strongly of the movie The General’s Daughter.  Butler spends most of his time interrogating other members of the military forces, so any action is quick and relatively indistinct.  I must give kudos to the author for writing something you don’t come across too often in science fiction.

Mammay broke a few other tropes as well.  Butler is a highly decorated combat officer, but he is close to retirement, and he is by no means superhuman.  In combat, he actually defers to the commanding officers, and he doesn’t show skills that would be better than anyone else’s.  The military structure is also unique: no more navy, marines or air force in space-age combat, but a more logical division between ground troops, medical personnel and special operations.  This new military structure was surprisingly effective: it kept me on my toes, and I didn’t fall back into familiar territory, which would have made me more complacent.  However, the biggest deviation from established science fiction is that mankind is unabashedly evil.  They destroy entire planets and alien races, without any qualms, and the author, via his narrator’s voice, is not moralizing on this issue.  The colonial drive of mankind is a cold hard fact, and not the story vehicle.

Unfortunately, I personally wasn’t too excited about the writing style.  Three elements in particular didn’t work for me.  The first was the dialog.  The narrator can be quite verbose, but when he was in conversation, he and everyone he was talking to used very short sentences or phrases.  This made the dialog sound more like rapid fire, and I couldn’t gauge any emotions from conversations.  Its intended effect may have been that everyone sounded gruff and gritty, but I found it distracting that everyone sounded the same, in all situations.  My second issue may be associated with the conversation style as well.  Since his voice always sounds the same, Butler has the need to explain how he talks to people and why he uses a certain style.  Consequently, the book is full of explanations why Butler is hostile to one character or why he uses a quiet voice with someone else.  These explanations also indicate how he’s talking, because the dialog doesn’t indicate it otherwise.  I got a little tired reading for the twelfth time how Butler was trying to get someone out of their comfort zone to study their facial expressions.

By far my biggest gripe, however, was with the predictable plot.  This book uses a first-person narration, so the reader has the same information as the protagonist.  And yet, I was able to piece together the main elements of the conspiracy way before Butler even indicated that he had all the necessary information.  This makes Butler looks somewhat dumb, and I lost a great deal of respect for him.  Mammay is trying to throw in some cryptic information, which spiced the mystery a little after I thought about it, such as the question why Butler was sent to a planet where his daughter died in action, but these elements are quite sparse and occasionally don’t even make sense (such as how did his superior know to send Butler, if the connection was directly related to the result of the investigation).  This predictability and especially my frustration from seeing Butler stumble towards the same conclusions I had made much earlier in the book took away any immersion I may have had.

I liked the setting and the structure of the book.  It was refreshingly different from most science fiction involving the military.  The few significant changes to the existing tropes, in particular that the humans may be the bad guys and the lack of moralizing about the fact, were also a welcome change.  Unfortunately, the protagonist was not only unlikable to the other characters (which was his intent), but also to the reader.  Even though there remain a few unanswered questions, I don’t think I’ll be rushing to buy the sequel.

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