Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn 
Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems
short stories

Pawn's Gambit  is a collection of  fifteen short stories, many of which made their first appearance in SF magazines and anthologies, ranging from 1981 to 2014.  

"Pawn's Gambit"

This is the title story and also the last story in the book.  It's an alien abduction tale.  Kelly McClain awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he got there.  He has heard recent stories from around the globe about abductions and that all agreed that they had to play some unfamiliar games and were then returned to Earth.  After his initial panic, he settles down to wait.  Eventually he is contacted by one of the Stryfkar who explains what will happen to him.  The games, the alien explains, are their ways of studying other races.

The alien doesn't tell McClain is that the games have a deadly purpose.  The Stryfkar were nearly defeated by another race, the Chanis.   The games are designed to identify those races that possess characteristics similar to those of the Chanis, and they will be destroyed before they pose a threat to the Stryfkar.

Normally, the winners of the games were returned safely home while the losers would remain until they finally won.  After losing several games they would have more experience with the games than newcomers, so they had an advantage, regardless of how poor a game player they were. Eventually they also would be returned. After having played several games, McCain is shocked to find the Stryfkar have changed the rules.  Now, he and his opponent would play three games and the winner would be returned home while the loser would die.

Inserted into the narrative are communications among the Sryfkar which give the reader more insight into them and their actions and which  allow the reader to see the growing threat to Earth which McCain is unaware of.

Several other SF works involving game playing for high stakes are Philip K. Dick's The Game Players of Titan, and The Player of Games by Iain Banks.  There are many others, no doubt.

I found the most interesting part to be the relationship that developed between McCain and his opponent, Achranae, as they struggle to overcome the cultural barriers so as to be able to work together against their common foe.  I can only wish this story be expanded to develop this more thoroughly.

"The President's Doll"

This tale points out something I should have noticed myself long ago, but never did.  I actually don't feel that bad because I know of nobody else who saw it either.    That something is a needle.  This is why I think the story should have been titled "Voodoo Acupuncture."

In the voodoo tradition, a person is cursed by creating a small doll with some bodily parts of  the victim, such as fingernails or hair clippings.  Once constructed and the proper formula recited, needles inserted into the doll result in a corresponding damage to the victim.  In contrast,  in acupuncture, the practitioner inserts needles into the patient at certain specific nerve junctions to block pain or to solve some physical problem.

Two men got a brilliant idea.  Dr. Sam Pak, expert in acupuncture, and Dr. Pierre Christophe, from Haiti, very knowledgeable about voodoo, decided to combine their skills and create, essentially, acupuncture at a distance.  Once Christophe had created the doll, Pak wok insert the needles into the appropriate pain centers when necessary.

Detective Harland  of the Washington DC police becomes involved when he is assigned to work with the Secret Service on a case, the Case of the President's Missing Doll.  The President is a believer in the efficacy of acupuncture, but it wasn't as widely accepted in 1987 (when the story was first published) as it may be today, in some circles.  It would be politically embarrassing if the President were to be seen visiting an acupuncturist or one being seen to enter the White House.  So, acupuncture at a distance seemed the perfect solution, until someone broke into the Pak/Christophe Clinic and stole only one item, the President's doll.

Harland and Maxwell, the Secret Service agent, have one task:  find the doll and get it back before it is used.

It's a clever tale, and probably one that Zahn wisely decided to leave as a short story.  I don't think there's enough here to expand into a novella, much less a novel.

These are just two of  the fifteen short stories in this collection.  There's a post-holocaust love story, a drug sniffing dog tale, aliens who pose a threat to the solar system on their way elsewhere, a strange telephone book, a troll who works at a toll-booth, a wizard who, for fifteen years, has always showed up too late to use his powers to solve a problem,  and an old-boys insider trading network that employs telepaths, among other strange and entertaining tales.  Some are demonstrably SF while others are fantasy, and some are somewhere in-between.



  1. interesting... i think i read some Zahn at some point, but memory is not clear... i'm currently racing through the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt; highly entertaining stuff... he's a lot like Asimov... but with a bit of Heinlein thrown in...

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    2. Mudpuddle,

      I had the same reaction when I began to read the book. I thought I had read some short stories by him years ago, and I did recognize several of the stories in the collection. It'a an interesting mix of story types. I thought the book was entertaining, and although I wouldn't go out of my way to read another by him, I would have no objections to reading him again if a discussion group selected another by him.

      I have read one or two by McDevitt, but I know nothing about his Alex Benedict series.

      Asimov with a bit of Heinlein--an interesting mix.

  2. It has been too long since I read science fiction short stories. I am reading a bit more science fiction these days so I should delve a bit into shorter works too.

    I have head of Timothy Zahn for years but I do not think that I have ever read anything by him. These stories sound very good.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      If you are going to look into SF/F short works, then I would highly recommend Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Gene Wolfe among others. I have posted some commentary here on SF short works which you might want to review.

      Scroll down to the LABELS section on the right sidebar for links.