PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

More than once I’ve mentioned how Military SF can be problematic for me, since the focus on battles, strategy and technology in many novels tends to go the the detriment of characterization and story: this was not the case with Planetside, although after a promising start this book turned out to be a different kind of letdown.

Colonel Carl Butler, once a well-known war hero, is living in semi-retirement filling a teaching position, when his old friend General Serata calls him to investigate an issue which might have huge political repercussions: the son of a High Councilor, wounded in battle on a disputed planet, has disappeared after being evacuated on the medical ship, and Butler is dispatched to learn what happened.  Cappa is a planet where spacefaring humans found a local intelligent population: needing to mine the planet’s resources, humans have built a sort of uneasy truce with the Cappans, but there are insurrectionary fringes that still fight the occupying forces.  On his arrival at the space station orbiting Cappa, Butler finds himself mired in a web of conflicting information, blind alleys and red herrings, and the first inklings of a deeper trouble that might compromise the mining operations and the Earthers’ occupying force, so that his efforts at finding the truth – not to mention the whereabouts of the lost Lieutenant Mallot – are constantly met with lack of cooperation and a few attempts on his life.

The start of the novel is an intriguing one because it looks more like a mystery than a SF-Mil story and Butler’s voice is quite captivating: he comes across as brazen and uncaring of the toes he steps on in the course of his investigation – as a matter of fact he seems to enjoy ruffling everyone’s feathers, aware as he is that in his position he has nothing to lose.  Moreover, he’s a heavy drinker, and that brings him closer to the typical figure of the investigator in noir detective stories, which confers an appealing, old-fashioned patina to the otherwise futuristic narrative.  I liked how Butler’s personality comes to the fore through dialogues and his interactions with other characters, and his dry, not always appreciated, brand of humor tempers the military bearing turning him into a quite intriguing figure. The investigation itself is fascinating because we see Butler and his team-mates gathering different kinds of information, which allows the reader to get a clear picture of the background in which the story is set, without needing to fall into the trap of long, boring infodumps.

The first alarming cracks in the story appear with the description of humans’ cavalier attitude when landing on a new world: we learn that they take steps to “preserve” autochthonous species by relocating them, but that the needs of humans are always the deciding factor – which to me has quite an ominous sound. Worse still, Butler conveys the information that 

“If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters. As long as it didn’t hurt the commercial value, nobody cared.”

Apart from the narrative foreshadowing that this sentence implies, what truly shocked me here is the nonchalant acceptance of what amounts to genocide, not to mention the destruction of an existing ecosystem, that is carried out with such careless ease. Maybe I have watched too much Star Trek and become used to its utopian mindset, but there must be an intermediate way between the opposing philosophies of the Prime Directive on one side and the “humans first” attitude of this future vision.  

Which leads me to the big issue that brought down my rating for this book: at some point Butler is made aware of the possibility that the Cappans might have come into possession of higher technology that could help them in fighting the humans’ occupation – which, let me add, would have been their right – and that the planet’s dwellers have been used in genetic experiments of hybridization, a circumstance that would certainly not help in mutual understanding.  So, to avoid further trouble, the colonel resorts to a devastating solution that will remove the “Cappan menace” while maintaining the humans’ ability to exploit the planet’s resources. And he does so with what looks like such untroubled determination, such a blatant absence of moral quandaries, that any sympathy I might have harbored for his character at the beginning vanished immediately. Butler’s actions are not so dissimilar from other, real-life choices of actual military commanders in the recent past, granted, but what I find deeply disturbing is the matter-of-factness of the decision, and the total absence of inner turmoil that such a path should have engendered.  Not to mention the fact that he’s able to board a ship headed for home without anyone batting so much as an eyelash.

The abrupt ending of the book did not help me in metabolizing my feelings of horror and anger, and while I’m aware that there are two more books in this series and that the next one might portray Butler facing judgement for his actions or seeing the repercussions for such wanton destruction, I am so appalled right now that I can’t contemplate moving forward with the story.

My Rating:

20 thoughts on “PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

  1. This book was on my radar, and I had it on maybe list for a time hoping to see some reviews from bloggers I trusted. But wow, so the main character was basically the bad colonel guy from Avatar? LOL…I mean, as you say, a more holistic approach to colonization has been done by so many including Star Trek and others, so this might actually have had the potential offer a new and intriguing viewpoint, but the execution seems pretty straightforward, blunt and two-dimensional. I think I would need something more than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my! The evil colonel from Avatar sounds like a good comparison, but at least he was evil from the very start, while in this book Butler came across as a very sympathetic person at first, and one who could think *outside* of the usual military/exploitative frames of mind.
      I saw that many readers are praising the novel – and the series – so it might just be my own reaction, my own “chemistry” with characterization, and like you I would welcome some other points of view from my fellow bloggers whose tastes I’ve come to know and respect.


    1. I’m not sure: the… flippant attitude (for want of a better word) of the character toward an act of genocide, and the lack of reaction from the rest of the human contingent did not seem to lead toward any form of criticism – either overt or implied. Although I have to admit that this was my interpretation and I might be wrong here, but I usually tend to trust my… gut reactions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve not read this one, or anything by the author. I don’t mind reading stories where there are nasty people doing terrible things, after all that’s life, and it can make me care about what I’m reading even if I detest what’s happening. So right there it checks off one box for me, that I care about or have emotions about what I’m reading. But I do find it more challenging to keep reading if I don’t find any characters I can sympathize with, at least in some way. And it’s interesting that there didn’t appear to be a range of views portrayed in the story instead of just the one. It would be interesting to know if that’s addressed in future books but it’s a risky thing to keep the one book so very focused like that. This is likely the sort of book I’d need to be in the right mood to enjoy, otherwise I might have very similar reactions to yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You nailed the problem perfectly: there is no range of views here, nothing that points out at different outlooks from humans. Granted, it’s what happens when people move into an unexplored frontier and give little thought – if any – to the damage they might be doing or the injustice they might be doling out.
      Even though I’m furious at the cavalier attitude shown here, I’m also curious to see if it will be addressed in the next books – I just need to let my present anger cool a bit… 🙂


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