Friday, July 26, 2013

Leonard Richardson's CONSTELLATION GAMES

I've kind of overdosed in historical fiction lately, what with my Napoleonic War summer and all, and felt myself in need of an antidote to all of that highly mannered costume drama. I found it (Oh did I find it!) in Constellation Games, a book on which I've had my eye since I first spotted it at publisher Candlemark and Gleam's website really just based on that cover. So eye catching, even before one realizes it's actually depicting an exotic video game controller!

And I do mean exotic. For this is a first contact novel, and as far as our protagonist, game designer/blogger Ariel Blum (a male) is concerned, the only interesting way for two cultures to make such contact is via the sharing of video games past and present. And the Constellation, which is an Ian Banks Culture-style* conglomeration of all sorts of alien species, has millions of years of gaming history to share, all ready to be ported for human tech. At least as much so as stuff developed for wildly divergent sensory organs/sizes/number and type of limbs/utterly alien worldviews can be.

So of course our man Ariel seizes on this right away, and is chosen to be one of the lucky few who get to experience this contact directly. Before we know it, he's hanging out with an Alien otaku, who is not only obsessed with gaming, but also with an extinct and bizarre culture from his home world to the point of painstakingly recreating a period correct crappy apartment where an Alien like him once spent most of his life playing video games. Come on, this is every sci-fi nerd/gamer's dream, right? Aliens show up and they want to sit around your house and shoot the breeze and tell stories and talk about crappy awesome games from their youth and exciting new games under development and passing the controller around and making plans to port your stuff to their systems and vice versa? It can't just be me, you guys!

All this and there is a plot, too. For of course while our crowd is nerding it up, government types from Earth and sort-of-government-ish-but-really-more-hive-overmind-avatar-like from the Constellation are dealing with bigger matters. Like how an advanced civilization has shown up on humanity's doorstep to observe that it's a very nice planet and maybe humans should stop trashing it and hey, we can help clean it up if you want. And how certain factions on Earth don't like that idea one little bit, not in their backyards, they can have my non-existent global warming when they pry it from my cold dead fingers. But on the other hand, it is nice to have a space program again and while you scared the crap out of us when you blew up part of the moon, that is a very nice base you built up there. Mind if we do some of the experiments we had planned to conduct before we let our space program decay into kipple?

All of this is told in a wonderfully wry narrative voice in the vein of David Wong's "David Wong" in John Dies at the End. Except -- and this is my only quibble about this fantastic, fantastic book -- said voice mostly comes to us via his blog, making Constellation Games a 21st century epistolary novel, which is not my favorite narrative style even when it's done the way it should be, in exquisite and grammatical 19th century prose as rendered by a writer who cares very about that sort of thing and has created a character who also cares about that sort of thing. Ariel's blog posts are very casual and while not totally ungrammatical, well, they're a little too note perfect as blog posts. Fortunately, they are very funny blog posts, and really do fit the story and all of its wonderful little nuggets, like when Farang visitor/representative/gamer who has been dropping F-bombs right and left because hey, that's how Ariel talks, learns what F-bombs actually are and turns around, matter-of-factly, to inform Ariel that he swears too much. Hee.

What's really, really excellent about this book though, is that the aliens are really genuinely alien, as in not Star Trek humanoids with face wobblies, and so are their games, which really do make a wonderful lens through which to view a culture, and herein, like the aliens themselves, are really alien. And not just in that David Cronenberg bio-port/umbi cord way (though hey, I love me some eXistenZ as much as anybody!). For instance, one member species' individuals are essentially two individuals in one body, with the male mind "in charge" part of the day and the female for the other part. Their games are those a weird combination of cooperative and competitive and, incidentally, something that I would really like a chance to play someday. And no, that's not an unsubtle hint to any aliens who may be snooping on my blog. Although wouldn't that be awesome?

And now I'm off to read a story Richardson wrote for Strange Horizons a few years ago, "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs." Sample dialogue: "Humans won't pay to watch dinosaurs ride motocross bikes forever." YES. I think I love this Leonard Richardson person.

*A bit less anarchic, but basically it is the Culture, in all the ways that matter. The Culture with all kinds of bug-eyed monsters and other wildly alien life forms.

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