These days, everyone knows the search is on. Rovers on Mars. Satellites circling moons. Telescopes pointed toward distant galaxies in search of earth-like exoplanets. The hunt for alien life. One day, with a little bit of luck and a fair amount of effort, we may meet an alien member of our interstellar neighborhood. Of the many questions that arise in that scenario, how will we interact with them is perhaps the most difficult to predict? One possible answer to that nagging question lies at the heart of debut author Michael Mammay’s novel, Planetside (Harper Voyager).

The military sci-fi thriller tells the story of Colonel Carl Butler, a semi-retired Army officer brought back into action for a final mission. Lieutenant Mallot, the son of a powerful politician, has gone missing while serving at a distant military installation, he is told. Butler accepts his assignment grudgingly, swayed by the promise of a comfortable retirement for him and his wife.

Butler’s destination is a military base on a planet in a far off system called, Cappa. From afar, it’s the opposite of earth, “a mottled brown ball with some splotches of pale green and a few specks of blue.” It has an ocean on one side and underground sources of water on the other. The planet’s native inhabitants are intelligent humanoid, bipeds with “big, round, bulging eyes; elongated faces; and blue-and-yellow skin.” They are one of the rare extraterrestrial creatures capable of communicating with their human overlords. Unfortunately, the talent did little to improve their lot.

In Planetside, Mammay constructs a universe plagued by instability, replete with conflict and violence, real and symbolic. Human expansion proceeds unfettered, limited only by their technology and the state of planets ready to be colonized. They are intergalactic conquistadores in search of domicile and plunder

When humans discovered a new planet, it broke into two
categories: Habitable and uninhabitable. If humans couldn’t
live there in some comfort, the mining companies came in and
did their thing from orbit, but that was about it.

The desirable non-Earth planets with environments capable of sustaining human life — technically exoplanets — undergo extensive redevelopment

It’s a nice system. Great weather, and I like that the terraforming
is complete, so the amino acids are right… Something about
getting your food fresh makes life better.

Presumably, the Cappans had very little say in the matter because

If humans could live there, a planet became a potential colony… That’s where the military came in. We’d go in before the settlers and pacify the colony area. With our technological edge, that usually didn’t take long.

Earthlings run rampant across the universe and forced subservience in the form of colonization can be considered getting off easy. They’re the lucky ones because “If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters.” It’s a fatally binary future descended from a morally-suspect binary past.

Cappa, we discover, belongs to one of those worlds fortunate enough to be colonized. Needless to say, most of the planet’s native inhabitants don’t share the sentiment, forcing the human presence to be more Occupied Iraq than Occupied Japan. Sure, there are civilian settlers from Earth on Cappa, but they are weaponized breed, much the same way Han Chinese flood into Tibet making it their home. Eventually, the new population will outnumber the old and the once-disputed territory will truly be conquered without a shot being fired.

Butler finds out firsthand that Cappa is anything but pacified and its inhabitants anything but welcoming. While visiting Base 17A, he and his military escorts come under fire from natives. Twice. But the fact that the Cappans alter their tactics tip him off to the fact that there’s more to their attack than anti-colonial sentiments. Someone is trying to disrupt the investigation and doesn’t want Butler finding Malloy. The Cappans are simply hired guns.

As Butler draws closer to Malloy’s whereabouts, the boundaries begin to blur. Superior and subordinate. Organic and artificial. Most of all, human and alien. In this version of the future, no amount of subjugation can prevent what is, perhaps, the inevitable.

Planetside comes into its own during skirmishes and chases and Mammay’s writing is crisp and moves well. It’s a picture he obviously feels confident painting. If you’re a fan of military science fiction, this one won’t let you down.

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Harper Voyager

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