4 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Murphy’s Gambit is a hard sci-fi, traditional faster-than-light travel spaceship themed adventure story. The protagonist is unique, I think this is the only sci-fi story I’ve read where the protagonist is adapted to zero gravity and has trouble under normal Earth conditions. The supporting cast isn’t quite as engaging, and the villain borders on being evil for the sake of evil even though there are much easier ways to accomplish their goals of supervillainy. The setting is a standard corporation-controlled space dystopia, which I wasn’t especially thrilled with, but was serviceable for the story the author was trying to tell. The pacing is good, and the author keeps the stretches of exposition brief, which is a definite mark of distinction among far-future sci-fi. I would recommend this book as good hard sci-fi that’s very accessible.
Theadora Murphy is a floater, a low status and discriminated-against human who was born into and physically shaped by low gravity. She has done her best to reject her status as a floater and enlisted in a military academy as a pilot. When a mysterious corporation tries to entice her to join a secret project, she finds that they will go to any lengths to coerce her into her cooperation.
I wasn’t especially enamored of the setting. Not because I don’t see the horrific possibilities of corporations taking over everything, but because unless an author can bring something unique to this possible future, it just isn’t very interesting anymore, and this setting thesis just isn’t that inherently interesting. I mean, once you get past the unfettered-greed-is-bad argument, there just isn’t much to this type of setting. I sort of feel the same about the inclusion of a societally discriminated-against caste of workers as well. Yes, discrimination is bad, and pretty much anyone who is going to be swayed by that argument already believes this, but unless you can contribute something new to the subject it isn’t that inherently fascinating.
There are some interesting bits in the setting putting aside those two tired bits, though. Space travel and communication is controlled by one company who has a monopoly on the equipment to launch ships or communications to faster-than-light speeds, and this creates some interesting dynamics that made me reflect on the parallels with sea shipping trade ports in our own past and how their erosion in importance has reshaped our societies. Other than the over dramatically evil corporations and the slave caste, everything else in the setting seems to work well and creates an interesting dynamic that is a nice little intellectual playground to lose yourself in thinking about how a system like this could work.
The story itself is the winner here. The pacing is good, there aren’t any huge coincidences that the author uses to lazily usher the plot along, and you get a real sense of growth from the protagonist as she goes from eager cadet to disillusioned independant woman. You never really appreciate how compelling a well constructed story is until you encounter one. This is how hard sci-fi should be written, with relatable, interesting characters who are already familiar with the worlds they live in without feeling the need to constantly spout exposition at each other.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
The settings are a bit different, and Murphy’s Gambit doesn’t have the persistent British feel to it, but other than the fact that the author doesn’t employ a multitude of viewpoint characters this feels a bit like an Ian M Banks The Culture novel. A good introduction to the The Culture series would be Player of Games. I suspect if you like the The Culture novels you will like Murphy’s Gambit, and vice versa.