Book Review: Colonyside, by Michael Mammay
For awhile now, I’ve been reading more ebooks than paper ones. It’s something I never would have thought of years ago, but honestly the convenience offered by library apps like Libby and Overdrive make it wonderfully easy to snag an ebook or audiobook to read at my convenience. A phone takes up even less space than most paperbacks, and I almost always have it on me. That’s the 21st century for you.
However, one thing that ebooks haven’t quite managed to duplicate is that feeling of browsing the shelves at the library or bookstore, and picking out a random book on the shelf … just ‘cause. It’s just easier to take a book off the shelf and read the back blurb than it is to wait a couple seconds for a book’s page to load up on the library app, though that loading time probably just means I should upgrade my phone and/or wifi router.
This said, I still try to capture that feeling of randomness when browsing through Overdrive, which is what brought me to Michael Mammay’s Colonyside. It’s actually the third of Mammay’s -side novels, preceded by Planetside and Spaceside. So, y’know, points for a consistent title gimmick, at least.
As one could expect from those titles, Mammay’s books are pulpy ‘boots and lasers’ sci-fi. They center on Col. Carl Butler, a former space-army officer who gets pulled out of quiet retirement to get sent on various space adventures. As you do. In Colonyside, the daughter of an ultra-rich space-businessman goes missing on an isolated, deadly jungle planet, so Butler gets hired on to investigate.
While Colonyside was the third in the series (and the library didn’t have the first two available for some reason), it’s not completely inaccessible. Most of the book’s action takes place on a single planet, and centers on Butler’s investigation. There are some nods to Butler’s background and what he got up to in previous books (including nuking a hostile alien species of some sort?) but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot.
From the description and the cover, one might think Colonyside to be a mil-sci-fi shoot ‘em up, but Mammay makes things more complicated than that. As while there are indeed a couple of fun action scenes (including giant carnivorous space-apes), most of the book is devoted to Butler’s investigation. He interviews people, chases leads, gets into trouble, and so on. Honestly, the whole thing reminded me more of a noir mystery than anything, down to Butler’s snarky first-person narration and penchant for whiskey. Though it’s also worth noting that Mammay doesn’t go full noir, either; nobody wears a fedora, and there’s not a single femme fatale in the whole book.
The mashup of mil-sci-fi and noir is a fun one, but Colonyside never quite gels as a story. Again, I haven’t read the two books before it, so I may have missed some important backstory or character development for context. But even if I were familiar with the previous books, a lot of the setting and action feels … vaguely generic. Like, I can’t even remember the name of the colony or planet in a book called Colonyside, which … hm. It’s a jungle planet with a toxic atmosphere that forces the colonists to live in big domes, which I’m gonna be nice about and not compare to James Cameron’s Avatar movie. (Also there aren’t any blue catpeople).
The thing is, I never got the reason why the colonists were, uh, colonizing the planet, apart from the fact that it was apparently along some potentially lucrative space-trade routes? It just strikes me that, by adding something like Spice or Unobtanium or some other kind of super-valuable sci-fi MacGuffin resource, Mammay could have easily raised the stakes and given the setting a lot more flavor. As it is, there’s just sort of a vague conflict between people who want to develop the weirdo-deadly jungle planet, and some environmentalists who want to leave it alone. Thankfully, things never get into making fun of Strawman-Greenpeace space-hippies, so that’s nice. Still, the bad guy’s plan– not to mention how Butler foils it, never quite clicks as a thing. Which is a shame, as it makes a big fighty battle against a horde of carnivorous alien apes feel kind of tacked on?
All and all, I enjoyed Colonyside well enough– and I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read the prior two books. But at the same time, some tighter plotting and a more engaging setting could have made the book into a real page-turner, instead of a mildly amusing distraction to read on my lunchbreak. This said, I might at least give the first book, Planetside a read, just to see if there’s some key aspect of the setting that I’ve missed that brings the whole thing together.
That is, if it ever pops up on my library app.