Constellation Games

It’s awards time in the science fiction and fantasy world. Which means nothing. It’s always award time in the science fiction and fantasy world.

The annual Locus reading list is out which creates a small dilemma for me. Should I participate in the award rituals and cast a vote in the Locus awards? That would mean participating in one of those many awards I regard as largely useless in terms of distinguishing merit or lasting value. On the other hand, as a subscriber, I will get a free issue added to my subscription. (I’ve only missed the voting twice in over thirty years.)

That would be $7.95 of value. Somehow I think my time will be better spent doing things besides cramming down 2015 titles between now and tax day.

While I don’t think awards are a guide to picking books, reading lists are another matter depending on whom made the list. The annual Locus reading lists are good guides.

These thoughts were triggered by comparing the merits of Leonard Richardson’s Constellation Games to the Hugo winning Ready Player One.

Richardson’s gaming novel is far superior to Cline’s.

A retro review from May 1, 2012 …

Review: Constellation Games, Leonard Richardson, 2012.Constellation Games

Yes, the cover is ugly – an amateurish looking bunch of buttons with alien symbols on them on a sickly sage green background. (Seemingly more blue, though, in the actual published version judging by the publisher’s website.)

Yes, the subtitle, “a space opera soap opera”, is too cute and misleading for what the book is.

Yes, the cover description is professionally done but doesn’t inspire one with confidence as to whether the book will really deliver on its promise. Frankly, I wouldn’t have bought this book myself.

But this is a good book. It’s a funny book and an inventive one.

Narrator Ariel Blum is an acid tongued, sarcastic narrator – not normally the kind I like to spend time with, but I’ll grant he’s realistic, and I liked all the programming and engineering jargon he laced his speech with. When aliens show up and begin mining the moon for materials to build a space station, he has the insight that if the aliens have computers they have computer games. And Ariel knows his computer games. As a game programmer and obsessive game reviewer, he wants to study alien videogames.

What he finds out in those games about alien cultures, biologies, environments, and the effect of first contact with the alien coalition known as the Constellation is the most inventive part of this story. Apart from Ian Banks’ The Player of Games and Fritz Leiber’s “Knight to Move”, I’m not personally acquainted with any stories that use games to expose elements of alien culture (and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia seems to confirm this). That aliens would indeed have videogames now seems, at this point in our technological development, obvious, but only Richardson seems to have done anything significant with it.

Helping Blum is Curic, an alien whose bicameral mind has enrolled her in two conspiracies as to what to do with humans now that contact has been made. The problem is that most Constellation alien contacts find fossilized civilizations, long gone by the time the Constellation gets there. And, for the few they find alive, culture shock is a problem, and there are other threats to both human and alien cultures.

Besides Curic, Blum strikes a friendship up with the alien anthropologist Tetsuo who teaches him about alien videogames and insists, with frequently bizarre results, on teaching human college courses. His mate, Ashley, an alien paleontologist, is not sure what to do about his enthusiasms.

On the human side, there is Blum’s friend Jenny and why she is not his girlfriend, given the nature of their relationship, is unclear until the end. Blum’s friend Bai does have a girlfriend – a virtual one who resides on his phone. And Blum, after making contact on his own with the aliens, comes to the unwelcome attention of two agents of the newly organized Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs.

There is plenty of room for humor with cultural misunderstandings, alien-human interaction, and bizarre personal obsessions. But it isn’t a frivolous, light read. The story, told in a combination of first-person narration, blog posts, e-mails, and text messages, gets complicated. One peculiarity is that, while Blum makes some insightful comments on the attraction of human videogames, he does not, as far as I can tell, name a single real one though this story is set in the very near future. And you do have to pay attention to the various alien factions and games.

And the end is surprisingly moving as something is said about the nature of love and its place in an uncaring universe.

Don’t let the packaging put you off on this one. It’s worth reading.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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