Murphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell

murhpys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000)
Review by Ian Sales

Thiadora Murphy is a Floater, she was born and grew up in zero-gravity. But now she is a cadet at the Collective Enforcement Agency’s university, four months away from graduation, the first Floater to ever join the CEA. Which is hardly surprising, given that she had to train for months to withstand the gravity at the university campus – and that the Floaters are the Collective’s workers, treated so badly by the Corporations which run the Collective that they frequently revolt. Murphy is also the university’s best pilot.

She is called into the office of the university commandant, where a civilian – clearly a high-up executive from one of the corporations – has her fly a simulator which matches no known ship, and then offers her a job as a test pilot. She turns it down as she wants to be a CEA officer. Shortly afterwards, she is set up by a fellow cadet, accused of stealing his sportster to ferry arms to rebel Floaters. She is dismissed from the university, refuses to return home in disgrace, but cannot find a job. Again, the corporation – Gallger, responsible for the “launchers” which are used to transport ships from star system to star system – offer her the test pilot position. Murphy again turns it down, realising that Gallger had engineered her dismissal. Instead, she goes to work for Avocet, the Corporation which builds ships.

Avocet want Murphy to steal the Gambit, the mysterious ship whose simulator Murphy had flown. For some unknown reason, Murphy appears to be the only person capable of successfully flying the ship. The theft goes as planned. Onboard the Gambit is Kyle, the man who sold out Gallger to Avocet. During their escape, Murphy discovers why the Gambit is so sought after – it can “self-launch”, ie, it doesn’t need a launcher to travel between stars. Self-launching ships would destroy Gallger’s control of interstellar travel, and also free the Floaters from their near-slavery.

Unfortunately, Gallger manage to recover the Gambit before Murphy can deliver it to Avocet. With the help of her Floater family, Kyle, and Floater scientist Spanner, Murphy plots to steal back the Gambit. She gives herself up to Gallger – fortunately, Kyle proves to be the errant brother of the Gallger CEO, Vivien – and is sent on a test flight in the Gambit, accompanied by the CEA cadet who set her up at the university. The second theft doesn’t go as planned, although Murphy does learn the secret of the Gambit‘s origin – and why both Gallger and Avocet wanted her to fly it.

The loss of the Gambit leads to Vivien shutting down all the launchers, precipitating a war with the Floaters. When Murphy returns to save the day, destroying the Gambit in the process, the other corporations step in and arrest Vivien. There is a tribunal. Murphy is now a popular hero and so untouchable, but it looks like Vivien might get off with nothing more than a slapped wrist. Murphy demands a chair on the tribunal for the Floaters, so they are represented in the Collective government. After some politicking, she gets her way, and everything more or less returns to normal – albeit somewhat better for the Floaters than before. And Murphy is a test pilot for Avocet, who are now trying to reverse-engineer the Gambit from its wreckage…

One peculiarity of American science fiction is its penchant for corporate-dominated futures, as if it were only the private sector which is capable of colonising the galaxy. It wasn’t the private sector which put twelve men on the Moon, and it wasn’t corporations which colonised – or rather, occupied – the North American continent. These corporate futures are always depicted as almost Dickensian, with rapacious executives, and a population barely above subsistence level and with little or no rights. What’s the attraction? The USA has a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, both of which protect its citizens. So why do US science fiction authors continually posit futures in which people have no rights at all? For the sake of drama? Rubbish. There’s plenty of mainstream drama – there’s an entire genre, as popularised by John Grisham and others! – about the operation of those rights, and the legal apparatus which enforces and protects them.

It strikes me that such science fiction novels – and Murphy’s Gambit is one – are not intended as cautionary tales. It’s a failure of imagination, not a warning. Modern american consumer society is so inundated with corporate products and services that writers imagine the future will simply be more of the same. And yet, for some reason that escapes me, they decide to couple this with a treatment of ordinary people even a Victorian slumlord would shudder to consider. Certainly there’s no good reason for such a situation in Murphy’s Gambit. Gallger has a monopoly on interstellar travel, and the existence of the Gambit is enough to threaten that monopoly. Cue plot. (Of course, an effective, and honest, government would not have allowed the monopoly to form in the first place; but US genre authors seem to like to forget that if corporations are not as evil and rapacious as depicted in fiction, it’s because their government prevents them from being so… albeit, sadly, with decreasing effectiveness.)

In many respects, Murphy’s Gambit reads more like a 1980s science fiction novel than one published at the end of the century. A protagonist who is an outsider, but also a hotshot pilot, reminds me of SN Lewitt’s Angel at Apogee from 1987. The corporate-dominated future feels more cyberpunk than hard sf, and while Mitchell successfully gets across the dangers of space, and the long-term effects of living in zero-gravity, the plot is pure space opera. There are also a number of malapropisms – “veritable” used where “verifiable” was meant, for instance – and, most annoyingly, Fomalhaut is referred to throughout as Formalhaut (the name is Arabic, الحوت فم , fom al-haut, “mouth of the whale”), suggesting the book could have done with a more eagle-eyed line editor. Nonetheless, it managed to win the Compton Cook Award for Best First Novel in 2001. Mitchell went on to write a further four sf novels, the last of which, The Last Mortal Man, was the first in a planned series, the Deathless, but the publisher chose not to continue after one book.