Book Title: Pawn’s Gambit And Other Stratagems
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Timothy Zahn has always written entertaining and imaginative books over the years but his short stories are always something special to read. Each one of them is a delightful gem, demonstrating a creative concept and building an intriguing story around it. And the way he envelops you in each story and immerses you in its environment, the main characters and the problems they face, it never fails to grab my attention from the beginning of each tale until the end.
There are a wide variety of topics covered here about some traditional science fiction concepts, given inventive new spins here. From telepathy, alien abductions, holographic technology and alien invasion to alternate universes, unusual alien cultures and advances in robotics, there is something here for every sci-fi fan. There are also a couple of fantasy stories about trolls and wizards as well.
Want to know more? Here is a short synopsis of each of the fifteen stories (with no spoilers!):
“The Price of Survival” – A powerful and thrilling tale about what happens when an unknown alien ship enters the Milky Way galaxy on a direct course for our sun. When humanity detects this ship, they have to decide what to do about it because if the ship doesn’t change course, Earth is doomed!
“The Giftie Gie Us” – Neil is a veteran of an apocalyptic war who lives in the woods five years after the fact, living mostly in seclusion. He finds Heather, a blind woman who’s deathly ill, on the side of the road. He is scarred both emotionally and physically, and somehow, they find ways to help each other heal. But for a blind woman, Heather seems to have some preternatural senses, which might help when the home is raided by marauders!
“The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment” – The world’s first telepath, Dr. Staley, had his abilities certified by the federal government. When he examines the abortion debate going on about when life begins, he figures with his skills, he can inject some facts into the national conversation. As the media dissect his motivations and goals, it gets tenser until the experiment is carried out. What does he learn from it and will it change anything?
“Cascade Point” – The novella that won the author a Hugo Award in 1984, this tale is about how Captain Pall Durriken ferries passengers from one end of the galaxy to the other. But when he takes on a psychiatrist and his patient, a small problem escalates into a larger one as they pass through each cascade point on their trip. These cascade points show each person their future in multiple alternate realities. How do these two storylines intersect and impact each other? And when the entire ship faces a huge calamity, what can be done to solve the problem?
“Music Hath Charms” – On Algol VI, Javie and his wife talk about the new instrument called the Demonflute, which will be premiered tonight at a concert. Meant to rejuvenate a once popular form of music, they slowly figure out its alien origin and the deadly ramifications it might have on the people who hear it! Will Javie be able to intervene in time?
“The President’s Doll” – A special kind of doll is stolen and it’s mysteriously connected to the President of the United States. Detective Harland partners with the Secret Service to investigate the strange burglary and when they learn how its theft could harm the President, it becomes a race against time to stay one step ahead of the burglar and his employers.
“Clean Slate” – Saladar is a wizard with something to prove, going into the town of Abron Mysti. Gyran Pass is the only pass through the mountain between the two towns and it’s been closed off by something unknown and mystical. He must take this chance in order to prove himself as he’s been waiting for this chance for 15 years. What he finds as he attempts to fix this problem is way more than he ever expected.
“Hitmen – See Murderers” – Radley is a printer who receives an unusual one-of-a-kind phone book delivered to his apartment door. In it are strange categories revealing the identities of various criminals and what heinous acts they committed. As the book updates itself each day, Radley tries to use this knowledge for good trying to solve crimes, why does it not seem to work for him?
“Protocol” – Aimee and her husband live on a strange planet dominated by gigantic creatures called Stryders. But if don’t you don’t follow a particular protocol, they will kill you where you stand. But when they walk into town to get something from the market, a death without explanation occurs as no protocol seems to be broken. What’s going on with these Stryders and can Aimee survive another encounter with them?
“Old-Boy Network” – Rey is crippled, in a wheelchair, living on Mars working for a bunch of trillionaires. But the tremendous secret Rey holds is the key to their wealth and how these rich folk are able to entrench their place in society more firmly. As we get more tidbits on what’s really going on here, a seemingly anomalous factor could irrevocably affect all of their plans.
“Proof” – Angel is a prison inmate placed in an innovative prison where not everything is what it seems. Utilizing holographic technology in creative ways, it helps keep violence down and taxpayers happy with its cost-saving measures. But can Angel find a way to break out of this unique prison that’s supposedly escape-proof?
“The Ring” – Nick is a man whose portfolio has been devastated by the stock market. Despondent, he runs across a mysterious individual offering him a ring that will help give him unlimited wealth. The shop owner will give it to him for free in exchange for a cut on his future earnings, of course. But clearly, there is more going on here as the price to pay is a steep one.
“Trollbridge” – Kersh is a troll, working in a toll booth on the George Washington Bridge. He’s loved bridges all his life and hides well among humans. But when a bomb is found on the underside of the bridge, Kersh decides he must find the culprit and checks with communities of different magical creatures to see if they did it. But can he prevent the situation from happening again?
“Chem Lab 301” – Gerald is a teacher’s assistant, helping students learn more about advanced science through hands-on experience. To add to the fun, there is a dog who is on loan from the Justice and Legal Studies Department who’s also a crucial part of the classroom learning experience. But there’s something unusual going on with one of his students and it’s up to Gerald to find out what it is.
“Pawn’s Gambit” – Kelly has been abducted by an alien race and is forced to face off with other individuals from other races as well. The alien’s goal is to study their interactions by how they create rules for and play games of their own making. From this, the aliens deduce whether those races are a threat by how they play. But Kelly has plans of his own and they don’t always involve playing by the rules.
Some of these stories also get an afterword, explaining their origins and providing some additional insight into the author’s thoughts about them. All of them feature characters who are interesting, hide mysteries, have intriguing pasts and make you want to know about them. As you learn more about each character, you have feelings for them, their personality quirks and care about their fates, rooting for them to succeed in solving whatever calamity they face. And they face some very problematic challenges!
One of the author’s signature strengths is how he tells each story. It is paced well and maximizes each scene to create tension, slowly bringing the pot to a full boil over the course of the story. Each character faces a unique challenge and as more clues are revealed, we’re able to start piecing the larger picture together. The intrigue is compelling and the problem gets more complicated in unpredictable ways as we wonder whether these problems can be solved successfully. Each story then culminates into a powerhouse ending that completely stuns you with its cleverness and unexpectedness, leaving me awestruck many times over. Sometimes, the ending is just whimsical and humorous but it’s still equally surprising and unanticipated, bringing the entire story together.
These stories range in publication date, from 1981 through 2014 and some of them are a product of their times, referencing things like tapes and phone books that are considered archaic in our current modern age. However, that does not rob them of their storytelling power and the innovative way the author uses those settings as a way to comment on society and humanity.
This short story collection is a fantastic showcase of the author’s talent, ingenuity, and inventiveness. If you are a longtime fan or just someone who loves short stories, this book is for you.
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