I don’t make much of a secret about my Timothy Zahn fanboy status. I’ve written approving reviews of several of his novel series and stand alone books. Today we look at something different but still decidedly Zahn. Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of short stories and one novella.
In spite of the title, Pawn’s Gambit is not unified by a theme of strategy to the stories. They are, by and large, just fun stories that touch on the idea of point of view. The title story, Pawn’s Gambit, is something of the exception as it is exactly what you’d expect from the title, especially as written by this author. The narrative revolves around a man kidnapped by aliens as part of an experiment to work out how humans think by watching them play strategy games against alien players. It sounds like the perfect job to me but it actually carries a fairly sinister hidden purpose and, in the end, only one player gets to go home.
But as I said Pawn’s Gambit is actually the odd story out in the collection. The centerpiece of the novel, Cascade Point, is a Hugo winning novella that revolves around a space captain who works with a faster-than-light drive that lets him see into alternate timelines and has to grapple with seeing the possible outcomes of his decisions on a day to day basis. The question of what could have been is a more literal one for him that it is for most people and it turns out glimpsing the answers can be worse than not knowing.
Stories like The Price of Survival and Hitmen – See Murderers revolve around what we know, when, and how it distorts our decision making process. Reality may be objective but our ability to grasp it is pretty limited. Likewise, stories like Protocol caution us about our limited understanding of others and The Giftie Gie Us reminds us that even our understanding of ourselves can be limited.
Whether the protagonist is a telepath who thinks to find the truth about human nature but is foiled by his own id or a wizard who’s magic carries a terrible price that paradoxically drives him to use it all the more, Zahn’s stories are simple, effective and engaging. What’s more, unlike much science fiction, they don’t speak to the intricacies of culture, science or progress but rather delve deep into human nature and the limits we will undoubtedly face no matter how advanced we think we’ve become. And that makes Pawn’s Gambit more than worth your while.