Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Cosmic Checkmate

Katherine MacLean & Charles V. De Vet Cosmic Checkmate (1962)
Having written mostly short stories, Katherine MacLean is one of those authors who came up through Astounding, Galaxy and the like and who appears to have subsequently slipped through the net. On the strength of The Diploids collection, this seems a terrible shame. Even without considering whatever factors you may wish to consider regarding her being a woman writing in what was a predominantly male field, I'd suggest it's really only the greater page count clocked up by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the like which could possibly justify her not having been ranked alongside them as one of the giants. She wrote well, and she wrote her own highly distinctive kind of story - science fiction concerned mostly with systems theory, games logic, social interaction and biology. It's difficult to confuse a good MacLean with the work of anyone else.

Cosmic Checkmate is written in collaboration with Charles V. De Vet, whom I hadn't heard of and apparently doesn't even rate a Wikipedia page. Being unfamiliar with the guy, it's difficult to say for sure what his contribution to Cosmic Checkmate might have been; but given that MacLean's involvement is obvious, and that this is fairly disappointing for a book with her name on the cover, I guess De Vet's ideas encompass all those elements which just aren't that interesting.

Our story takes a lone human to the one planet which refuses to have anything to do with Earth's galactic empire. There he finds a bizarrely formal pseudo-human society with all sorts of elaborate honour codes evolved from its unorthodox biological cycle - most likely all designed by Katherine MacLean and very interesting too. Honour demands that the fate of our man and the galaxy depend upon him playing an elaborate chess-like game upon which the alien society is founded. Beyond this, the narrative is unfortunately just not that engaging, and briefly inspired bursts of MacLean - or what I would imagine must have come from her - don't really elevate the tale above something which you read until the point at which you've finished reading it, which is a pity. Even in the context of stories in which the protagonists decide the fate of something much bigger than themselves over a game of chess - never the most mind-boggling subgenre - Cosmic Checkmate just isn't that good. There's a fairly pleasing conclusion about the benefits of a varied and multicultural society - both social and biological - but it really should have been tagged onto a better story.

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