Saturday, 21 September 2013

Review: Constellation Games

Constellation Games
Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that's brilliant enough that I don't always get it, whether because I miss some of the references or because I'm just not thinking at the level of the author. It's the kind of book I want to read again sometime to see what else I can get out of it.

It's true speculative fiction. What I mean by that is that it isn't just another genre sausage, with the same basic shape and contents as all the other sausages in that genre; it actually has a new angle. This is first contact as seen through the eyes of a video game developer and reviewer who attempts to understand the aliens by playing their games.

The Constellation, the peaceful alien civilisation that contacts Earth in 2012, is a post-scarcity anarchy (fans of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross will know what that is, and probably enjoy this book a lot). They're pleased to discover that Earth is not another of the planets where a civilisation has destroyed itself, leaving only fossils, since this sad fate is more common than the survival scenario. They'd like to keep it that way, but humans are irrational and get upset when the aliens try to help with things like global climate change.

The story is told largely via a series of documents, mostly blog posts, but there are also IM conversations and a few other formats. Some of the short chapters, though, are headed "Real Life" and a date, and since they're written in almost the same style as the blog posts, I did often find myself checking back at the beginning of the chapter I'd just finished to see if it was a blog post (and hence public, or at least circulated to the narrator's friends) or not. That's important, since as the story goes on, the blog posts contain more and more lies for various reasons. Mostly, these have to do with the narrator protecting himself or someone else.

The language has some wonderful moments. Not only the slightly distorted English of the aliens, but some of the narrator's phrases. "He twisted some vowels into balloon animals," for example, as a description of an alien speaking an historical language of his race. (The several alien races, by the way, are referred to by various words that different human groups use to mean "alien"; besides the Aliens, there are Auslanders, Gaijin, Farang....) There are also some lovely moments of commentary on our society. "As if we'd all gotten together and agreed to do whatever it said on signs," the narrator observes when a minor official glares at him for not doing something posted on a sign. There's a strong thread of anti-authoritarianism, if you hadn't already picked that up (also, as one of the aliens observes, the narrator swears a lot).

The references to technology and video games are a mixture of real-life and invented. There's a character called Dana Light who is more or less a Lana Croft, for example, but not exactly. That's helpful for someone like me, who hasn't played a great many video games, because if a lot of the point depended on intricate knowledge of the trivia of popular culture (as in, for example, Ready Player One), I would have enjoyed it a lot less than I did. Instead, it's about the phenomenon of gaming and how it expresses and shapes culture and psychology, and using that as a lens to examine things about culture and psychology.

The editing could have been better. The book deserved for it to be better, in fact. Based on this and on another book I've read from Candlemark & Gleam, the small press that published it, what you get from C&G is developmental editing on your high-concept book, rather than meticulous proofreading and copyediting. What the customer gets is probably pretty much what comes out of the author's word processor. In the case of the other book, that included a lot of homonym errors. In the case of this one, it means a number of what are basically typesetting mistakes (missed words, misspellings, lost quotation marks, one instance of an inconsistent time in a sequence of tweets), plus a few apostrophes missing in phrases like "Ten mortgages worth of signatures" or misplaced in words like "childrens'". It's a long way from terrible, but I wish it had that extra polish.

Between the less-than-flawless proofreading and the slight unlikeliness of some of the aliens, this isn't a perfect book, but it is an excellent one, funny, thought-provoking, original and possessing a rare depth, and that is why I've given it five stars.

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