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Starmasters’ Gambit

Starmasters’ Gambit by Gerard KleinStarmaster's Gambit front
DAW Books, 1973 (Original French edition published 1958)
Price I paid: 90¢

As colonists penetrated the galaxy, a series of strange legends accumulated about the worlds just beyond the rim of our exploration.

These legends told of vast black citadels built by pre-human intelligences that dominated certain deserted planets. And the legends agreed that these colossal structures were not only impenetrable to explorers—but were still in some mysterious way activated.

This is the story of Jerg Algan, into whose restless hands fell the key to the citadels.

This is the story of Jerg Algan whose fate it was to be a “knight” on a cosmic chessboard, leaping to planet to planet as a gambit—a chess sacrifice move—to check the dark monarch who ruled the farther half of the Milky Way.

This is the novel that established Gerard Klein as the leading modern science fiction novelist of Jules Verne’s homeland.


Before I started reading books for the purposes of reviewing them I never really paid much attention to cover art. Sure, there were some books that I thought had pretty good art—I’ve got a copy of Time Enough for Love that I particularly like—but on the whole it wasn’t something I really cared about.

I wouldn’t have been able to name a single cover artist even if you linked me to Wikipedia’s list of them and told me to read aloud from it. It was something I never gave any thought to, and I think that’s a shame. I know that Kelly Freas is one of the greats now, and this is the second book I’ve read with him doing the cover, and I feel the need to go through my collection and see what else I might have that he’s done.

I mean, look at this! Bruce Campbell is standing there on a pedestal wearing a bell-bottomed space suit on a gigantic chessboard. Why does he need to wear a bubble helmet if his sleeves are rolled up like that? Meanwhile Peter Cushing is looking down while a ghost of Master Hand from Super Smash Bros.  is ready to begin the final level.

At first I thought there were strings coming down from the sky but it turns out that this cover is just in bad condition. Somebody scored it pretty badly with some kind of implement and that’s a damn shame.

As far as the book itself goes, I’m pretty torn. It had some really good bits. This book was translated from the French, and the last time I did one of those the book was just awful, so I was worried. Maybe the translation was better or maybe it was just better source material or both, but either way, Starmasters’ Gambit was a much easier book to read.

It was less pulpy than I thought it would be, too. I mean, with that cover and that synopsis, I thought I was in for some good old pulp action. As it was, the book was more cerebral and philosophical than I thought I was getting into, and at times that really dragged.

Jerg Algan is a guy living on Earth in a section of the planet just called Dark. It’s a wretched hive of blah blah and is also a starport. Earth is pretty much empty. There’s no real time given to this setting but it’s so far ahead that the Earth is basically overgrown with plant life and ruins. Mankind has spread out amongst the stars, leaving the homeworld behind.

Jerg is just fine living on the Earth, though. He’s never left it and he’s described pretty frequently as “old fashioned” in his ways. So when he gets hijacked and sent into space against his will, he’s pretty peeved about it.

The center of the human galaxy is now located at Betelgeuse, but there is significant friction between the core government and the ten so-called “Puritan Planets.” Jerg was sent out against his will by agents from Betelgeuse, but a guy named Nogaro fills him in with the details.

Jerg is to act as a free agent to the stars. There is some degree of evidence that there was some kind of pre-human civilization out there, and whichever group gets ahold of their technology and stuff first will have a lead in the galactic cold war.

This is a theme we see a lot in pulp science fiction. It’s later revealed that this pre-human civilization did a big directed panspermia that created the various human races throughout the Milky Way. Yet another science fiction theme we’ve seen a lot. Is it just coincidence that I’m reading a lot of this kind of book, or was this a really rehashed theme during the fifties through the seventies? Even Star Trek did it on at least two occasions I can think of.

I think the reasoning behind this kind of plot has a lot to do with the same reason people tend to grasp at religion and, to another extent, conspiracy theories. The idea of a huge galaxy-spanning race that created mankind is a satisfying one because it’s basically a way of saying that yes, there is something vast, incalculable, and in control, and it has a reason to pay attention to us. We’re either a pet project, an experiment, or a much-loved creation, and in that regard there’s reason to believe humanity has a Special Destiny as well as a benevolent protector to make sure we don’t go too far astray.

At the same time, there’s the conspiracy theory aspect. This book, I feel, goes more in that direction. Again we have something ineffable that’s in control, but we don’t know that it’s necessarily out for our best interests. The options are to believe that it is and go along with it or to actively resist. And yet again it makes humanity special while establishing that maybe there’s something that makes sense about the universe, at least to somebody.

The recurring theme throughout the book is chess. It’s a motif that gets brought up every couple of pages. For one, the artifact that Jerg has as his only source of information about this pre-human civilization is an ancient chessboard. It’s got symbols written on it, but it’s still the same 8×8 black and white board we’ve all come to know and love. Or loathe. I’m awful at chess. For two, Jerg is constantly pointing out how he feels like a pawn on a giant chessboard, being moved about at the whims of whoever is in control, be it Betelgeuse or the Puritan Planets. He does, at one point, get even more philosophical about it and consider the fact that he’s being moved around by other pawns, who are in turn being moved by pawns, and so forth until the headache starts.

The other theme that comes up a lot is time. This theme fit less well into the overall narrative and I wasn’t sure what was up with it until near the end of the book. Humanity is spreading out through the galaxy and is able to break the speed of light, but only in some kind of technobabbly way that still involves time dilation. Jerg occasionally discusses the fact that after his adventures are over, he’ll have no home to go to because so much time will have passed there while he’s only been gone for a few years. The Einstein Blues, I call it.

So Jerg, chessboard in hand, sets out to figure out what is up with these ancient ruins. After drinking a bottle of a hallucinogenic called zotl, he puts his hands on the chessboard and whooooom starts flying through space. This is where the book stopped being a narrative for a while and became a bit of a socio-philosophical monologue about man’s place in the galaxy and the nature of time and how chess is the key to unlocking man’s potential and maybe the Starchild was involved at some point and oh did anybody else read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker because both I and the author apparently did because yeah that was basically it.

After some travels, Jerg lands on Betelgeuse and starts talking with the computer that runs the human galaxy. Well, it’s more of a calculator for the eight guys who run the galaxy to ask questions to. The computer leads Jerg down to the rulers of Betelgeuse and instead of toppling them or casting them out or killing them or pulling down the statue or anything like that he just talks.

For like twenty pages.

About the stuff we just read about.

The end of the book basically rehashed the rest of the book, albeit with a little more context, for the convenience of the guys who run the human galaxy.

Oh, but one thing we didn’t learn earlier in the book comes to light. This pre-human race that controlled so much of the galaxy and built the citadels and were fascinated by chess? That race is stars.

Yeah, stars are alive and sentient and they run things, guys.

Again, I already read Star Maker. Back when I read that, it was a big surprise and an awesome reveal. This time it was a letdown. I’m sure it was two authors coming to the same neat idea, I’m definitely not accusing this book of ripping off the other one, but I’m still a little annoyed.

The stars created the various human races to spread the warmth of life throughout the galaxy, or something. We are basically robots, the book tells us, which is a conclusion I reached after my first couple of days working retail.

So Jerg tells the council that he’s going to spread the word to all humans so they can be immortal and fly through space without spaceships. The council tells him that no, he can’t do that because it’ll ruin all their best-laid plans. Jerg responds, basically, by saying “Guys, I work for the STARS.”

I suppose they relented after that, but the book ended.

Ugh, for such a decent buildup this book ended really badly. There was no climax, no struggle, no nothing, just a dude learning some stuff and then telling that stuff to some other guys who initially don’t believe him but then do. There’s no fun in that. At least give me Lovecraftian horrors falling out of the sky. Anything.

The universe this book set up, though, was actually really good. For one, Gerard Klein actually kept a pretty good sense of scale in this book. At one point somebody is talking about how far humans have spread throughout the galaxy and point out that it’s a really, really small amount, even after all this time. Divide the galaxy into 360 equal pie slices, the human races comprise four of them. That’s a detail you don’t often get in pulp, or any other science fiction, for that matter. Usually it’s either “We’re stuck in an undefined limited space” or “We zip around willy-nilly at infinite speed.” In this universe, the problem isn’t space or even the travel time, it’s the fact that the galaxy is huge and it would take us a really long time to fill it up. What Jerg’s discovery is, essentially, is a means to speed that up.

I said the book mentioned chess a lot, and at one point it was revealed that chess is some kind of symbol for the way the galactic transit system works. There wasn’t much detail about what that actually meant, but the upshot of it was that the various human races throughout the galaxy all have the same game, chess, because it was sort of imprinted on their minds. That’s a really neat detail and all, but seeing as how the game of chess has changed a whole lot over time just on our planet, I don’t feel like it would serve as a means of communication between different branches of humanity like this book suggests. Still, I really like the idea that chess is the galactic constant. Everybody knows it and everybody can learn to play it because that’s the way we’re built. Intentionally.

As much as the ending of the book ticked me off, I think I want to read more by this guy. I like his ideas and the way he presents them, even though that presentation might have been more the fault of the translator than the author. Could the translation have actually made the book better? I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m ever going to know enough French to know the answer for myself. I do thank this book for proving to me that not all French science fiction is completely awful. Just mostly.

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2 Comments

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Have you read any of Pierre Babet’s SF (another French SF author)? I’ve sort of wanted to get my hands on The Napoleons of Eridanus (1970). But I suspect it’s crap.

    Like

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