Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of short stories and novellas by author Timothy Zahn. Tim is best known for his Star Wars and sci-fi work, but he sneaks some fantasy into this book. The tales range from the far future and far off worlds, to those set right on our own little dust ball, in modern times but with an imaginative flair. There are fifteen stories in all, and at 342 pages, this book will last you several evenings. It’s a great way to get some escape, explore some fun ideas and perhaps find some insights that will cause you to question the world you’re in.

The book opens with “The Price of Survival.” It’s a sci-fi story about a deep space vessel piloted by an alien species. They’re on a course that will cause them to pass through our solar system, but at a cost. With a looming threat bearing down on them, humans must decide how they’ll react to this imminent, unknown threat. Yet it’s not just the human side of the story readers get to experience as the narrative flips between the aliens and the humans as both sides prepare for impact.

Then there is “The Giftie Gie Us,” a title which is a play on a poem which is quoted in the story. It explores a handful of characters living in the post-apocalypse of a World War III. Each of the characters have their flaws, but together they find they complement each other. In a way it’s a story of finding the perfect person. However, life always throws challenges at us, and the drama will keep you wondering just what kind of ending you’re in store for.

“The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment” has a slightly different approach as part of it is told as a journal. A secretary recounts the events of a profound experiment that changed America. It explores both sides of the abortion debate. The catch is it involves a telepath. If you could read information from human touch, what could you learn about the life of an unborn child?

Tim won a Hugo Award for “Cascade Point” which is all about space travel. A ship captain takes his passenger ship on a routine journey which soon runs into some unexpected issues. When they arrive at their destination, something isn’t quite right. Afterwards the crew and passengers must struggle to find their way back home. The cost comes at the well being of one individual. The captain must deal with the age old debate of the good of the many versus the good of the few, as well as his own selfish desires. It’s a story of self-discovery and overcoming all obstacles.

“Music Hath Charms” aims more toward humor as a futuristic band comes across an alien instrument that might rejuvenate their particular genre. The problem is that the thing they think is an instrument might not really be an instrument.

“The President’s Doll” is set in modern times, but with lots of fun twists. A detective gets caught up with the Secret Service as they try to track down a thief who stole something from the President  of the United States. The object in question is a voodoo doll. As you can imagine, the stakes are high as an unknown individual now has possession of a voodoo doll of the President. The fate of the country is at the hands of some very dangerous black magic.

Next up is “Clean Slate” which takes a step back from sci-fi and into the world of wizards. This is a very different take on wizards as it’s set in the far east and doesn’t star any dragons, orcs or goblins. Instead it’s a wizard struggling to make a name for himself. Having the power to do great deeds is only valuable if you can find something worth doing. In this story a wizard tries to find such a worthy task and prove that their kind can serve a higher purpose.

“Hitmen – See Murderers” really changes things up as it reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I really enjoyed this one. A regular guy finds a telephone book with some very strange qualities. Instead of the normal listings of plumbers and doctors, there are additional entries for things like murderers and thieves. With such strange knowledge, the question becomes what good can be done with it? Could you use that information to stop crime? To catch criminals? To turn those astray back onto the path? The main character makes a go of it, and the story is pretty interesting.

“Protocol” is an intriguing sci-fi story that ends too soon. Human colonists wind up on a planet with a race of giants. The giants cannot be communicated with, but there is a pyramid listing the proper protocol when in their presence. Mess up the protocol and they kill you. I would have loved to learn more about the planet, the colonists and the giants, alas it ends before any of that can truly be explored. It is a short story after all.

“Old-Boy Network” is about some billionaires on Mars who try to use some weird technology to stay rich. Bending the rules is one thing, but they stretch the boundaries of human decency and trample upon all who are poorer than them. This one explores an interesting technology as well as the nature of money, greed, humanity and even love.

“Proof” is set in the near future and is about prisons and the justice system. A new technology allows prisons to cut way back on costs and spending, but it also allows the inmates a tantalizing avenue of escape. For a twist, the main character of this story is a female serial killer who has a plan to break out. It’s one of the better stories in the book.

“The Ring” plays on old German folk tales and a play by Wagner. I man becomes obsessed with the stock market, comes across a ring, and like Frodo, is quickly besieged by powers well beyond his reckoning. With great power comes great responsibility, but also a wicked curse. This one was fun.

“Trollbridge” was my favorite in the book. It goes for a fantasy tale set in modern times as a troll works in a booth on a toll bridge. The troll lives a content life in having a job that allows him to continue serving his nature – that of collecting money from those who travel over bridges. Yet things get interesting when someone tries to destroy his bridge. This leads the troll on a merry adventure as he tracks down other mystical creatures to find out who is to blame. The ending is absolutely wonderful.

“Chem Lab 301” is kind of a pun, but explores the idea of advanced chemical technologies, a chemistry lab, and troublesome students. There’s sort of a twist, but it kind of comes out of nowhere and is a little too odd to be effective. The story would actually have worked better without the thing that happens at the end.

The last story is “Pawn’s Gambit”, which is my second favorite story in the book. It’s definitely worthy of being the title of the collection as it explores the idea of alien species, games, and the interactions of intelligent lifeforms. For one species, everyone might be a threat. For another, there are potential allies. And for humans, well, we go where the die is cast and somehow try to make the best of it. There’s comedy, drama and some very nice character building. It’s a great story and worthy of being read by itself. An excellent addition to the collection.

Overall, this is a great bunch of story stories to give readers an idea of what’s in Timothy Zahn’s head. There’s a taste of sci-fi, fantasy, comedy and drama. The stories explore the relationships of individuals, the struggles with everyday life in extraordinary circumstances, and the quirky roll of magic and technology in an otherwise normal plot. It’s a lot of fun and I give it a four out of five metal bikinis. If you’re a fan of Timothy Zahn’s books, you’ll want to check this one out.

Reviewed By: Skuldren for Roqoo Depot.

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