Planetside

By Michael Mammay
Harper Voyager; ISBN: 978-0062694669
Paperback, 384 pages. ©2018

When the son of a powerful politician goes missing on the front lines at Cappa Three, General Serata calls Colonel Carl Butler to investigate. Butler protests; he’s semi-retired, done years in cryo already, and besides, he’s got ugly history with that planet. But Serata is a good friend, and he makes an offer Butler can’t refuse. He accepts it against his better judgment figuring that at most, it will be five months out, a week to investigate and file a report, five months back, and he can finally retire.

But things aren’t as cut and dried as the general implied. Butler smells trouble from the moment he arrives at Cappa base. Lies and blatant obstruction by base personnel tell him something is very wrong. What’s worse, his digging stirs up a hornet’s nest. And when people start dying around him, both on base and planetside, Colonel Butler knows there’s far more to this mystery than anyone let on.

This is Michael Mammay’s debut novel and a damn fine read. Characters were all fully fleshed out and believable. Dialogue sounded realistic, like something you’d really hear in the given situation. Colonel Butler, in particular, felt true to what I would expect. A decorated war hero about whom books have been written and courses in the military academy are taught, he is savvy, smart as hell, and experienced at thinking on his feet. Walking through the mystery with him, seeing how his thought process pieced it all together, and cheering at his occasional lucky breaks, I was completely invested in his success. When things went very wrong, I was biting my nails beside him, breathless to see whether/how he would scrape out of this mess.

Planetside is a military sci-fi novel, and you feel it from page one. Every scene takes place on a military base or in a combat situation. There’s no mistaking the martial objective in Butler’s mission. Even the pacing felt clipped and crisp, which added to the realism of the story for me, especially given the plot. Military jargon—and a good share of swearing—filters into the dialogue and into Butler’s internal thoughts, but not so much that it’s unintelligible or hard to follow. Hell, it wouldn’t feel like a military novel without the F word, but Mammay doesn’t overdo it. Still, you don’t have to be a military sci-fi fan to enjoy the book. There’s a damn good mystery here, too, one you can sink your teeth into.

As for the science, we’re talking hard sci-fi that addresses actual hurdles of space flight. Ships travel for months at a time, sometimes more than a year, through multiple jump points between bases. Communications between bases are relayed through the jump points—not instantaneously, but delayed in a realistic fashion. Passengers and crew travel in stasis pods, and thus age differently from their stationary family members. Details outside the travel aspect also fit this standard. Weaponry, planetside transports, and base tech all feel futuristic enough to be engaging for a military with bases on far-flung planets, yet totally plausible. Soldiers who lose an appendage are outfitted with robotic replacements (to a point). The reader gets the solid impression that all this is old news because the officers and crew take it in stride, so it seems as real for us as it is for them.

I will say that I figured out a crucial piece of the plot twist early on in the book. I don’t know why; it isn’t like Mammay gives it away. He’s quite good at weaving the mystery in such a way that the reader doesn’t really know for sure what the hell is going on, or who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy. In fact, none of the characters are all one or the other. Still, I wasn’t certain of my conclusion, and the suspicion definitely did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel at all. In fact, isn’t that what one does when reading a mystery? Try and figure it out before the end?

With its fast pace, tight focus, and relatable characters and settings, Planetside drew me in completely. I started reading it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it Sunday night. I would have finished it sooner if I could have shirked all my duties. I didn’t want to put it down and I certainly didn’t want it to be over.

Good news—there’s word on the wind that Mammay got a two-book deal with this, and I hear that Colonel Carl Butler isn’t done with us yet. If you love Planetside as much as I did, that might be the best news you’ll hear all day.