Rating: 8.3 (out of 10)
When Colonel Carl Butler, the “bald and angry” hero of Michael Mammay’s debut milSF thriller Planetside, arrives at Space Command, he is approached by an aide of General Serata, whom he once served under and is there to meet. While observing the aide, Colonel Butler privately notes that Serata inspires a “fanatical loyalty” in his underlings. Butler’s awareness of this comes from personal experience, but it doesn’t inoculate him from its effects – he did, after all, travel a long way to meet his friend General Serata on official business, despite being semi-retired with a cushy teaching gig and under no obligation to do so. Loyalty is a concept that is often taken for granted in military fiction; a character’s virtue (or lack thereof) is often tied to it, but rarely is it put under the microscope the way it is in Planetside. Butler spends a lot of time dealing with the various loyalties of others as the novel progresses. His own loyalties are never called into question, and this turns out to be a curse as much as a blessing.
Serata’s request of Butler is a simple one: a powerful politician’s son – one Lieutenant Mallot – has gone missing on the colony planet Cappa Three, where they are still fighting of an insurgency among the native population. Serata needs Butler to find the kid, or at least find out what happened to him, before said politician stirs up too much trouble. The investigation needs to be “quick, clean and tight”, according to Serata. That could also describe the novel, excepting the “clean” part. There’s nothing clean about what Butler uncovers on Cappa Three.
The echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are plain, and Mammay is confident enough to reward our recognition of this as well as use it against us. One of the things that endeared me to this novel was the author’s skill at setting up the reader’s expectations and then knocking them down without breaking the trust necessary for such a relationship to work. It quickly becomes clear why Serata needs Butler for this task – Butler is skeptical enough to approach everyone as if they have something to hide and can’t be trusted, but observant enough to recognize honesty and trustworthiness when he sees it and foster relationships with people he needs to help him achieve his objective. This is no easy feat when there’s a conspiracy afoot, and the question of where people’s loyalties lie can get you killed if you read someone wrong. What impressed me the most about how the plot of Planetside unfolds is the fact that Butler’s competence and intelligence are never faulted for his inability to put the pieces together from the start.
As those pieces finally start falling into place, Planetside builds to a shocking climax, one made even more disturbing by the air of inevitability that accompanies it. The reader is just a as aware as Butler of all the red flags that rise along the way, and like Butler we are slow to accept the ramifications until it is clear there are no other options. I found myself wishing the novel had dedicated a little more space to its world building, particularly the social/political/cultural circumstances of human civilization outside of the military context; doing so would have served this novel’s conclusion better. Planetside is still a damn good page turner as it is, that leaves you with plenty to digest when you put it down.