Boing Boing is something of an unreliable place to get book recommendations. In 2011 Mark Fraunfelder calledReady Player One “the best science fiction novel I’ve read in a decade,” which made its shruggable mediocrity an unpleasant surprise.
So when Cory Doctorow said that Constellation Games “IS AN AMAZING BOOK,” I wasn’t expecting much. A debut novel, from one of Doctorow’s writing students, about a video game reviewer who makes contact with aliens. That could go wrong about a million different ways, and it can only go right maybe three. Its cover seemed to sound an extra warning; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an uglier one, including this one.
But the Kindle version was only $5, and I’d been jonesing for sci-fi lately, so I ponied up, expecting almost nothing. Imagine my surprise when I found that Constellation GamesIS AN AMAZING BOOK.
That half-a-sentence summary—video game reviewer makes contact with aliens—is about all I’ll give you of the plot and premise. Not just because I’ll spoil it, but because everything else will make the book sound much worse than it is (for instance: the primary antagonist is myopic bureaucracy … nope, not enticing).
I won’t be able to do justice here to the richness that Richardson manages to cram into such a dull-sounding premise. This is mind-sci-fi, there are no laser guns, only sociological questions without clear answers.
It’s lucky, then, that Richardson also manages to include captivating characters, truly inventive ideas, and general hilarity. It was Douglas Adams’s birthday last week, if you’ve been wishing for another Adams novel, this will scratch that itch. (It’s not as parodic, but it is every bit as entertaining. Another comparison would be Max Barry’s Machine Man.)
The story centers around Ariel Blum, a listless game developer who’s plummeted from a lofty position at a name-brand studio to hacking out the fifth iteration of a freemium pony-owning game for 10-year-old girls. In his expanding free time, he runs a game review blog, so when the aliens (a consortium of species called the Constellation) land on the moon, he emails them and asks if he can play some of their games.
Since the Constellation can create anything in their Repertoire fabricators, they offer him his choice of game consoles from the past ninety million years of a dozen species’ history, and Ariel gets to work.
By investigating different systems and games, and each one’s creation date in relation to when its creator species was contacted by the Constellation, Ariel begins to piece together a basic understanding of these various species, and the impact of the Constellation. Meanwhile, the CIA enlists him to spy on the Constellation, and look out for something called Slow People.
There are some big ideas at the heart of this novel, but the real draw is the way Richardson lays out realistic twists and turns for his characters, and the verve and wit with which they navigate them.
For instance, one of the first games Ariel reviews is called “Sayable Spice.” He believes it to be a game in which you collect parts of keys and combine them to unlock locks. But since it’s not in English, he can’t really understand it.
Here’s what happens when Ariel asks for a translation from his Constellation contact, a “Farang” named Curic:
No one speaks Edink anymore and no English translator is available.
ABlum: why not?
we have huge corpus of text
i could make my own translator if i had google’s computer
you have computronium + strong ai
what is the problem?
Curic: Strong AI is the problem.
Farang languages are multispacial and feature internal dialogue.
Edink-English translation software would have nearly full sentience.
You’re asking me to create a new form of intelligent life and give it to you.
Are you going to take care of it?
Richardson’s ability to create layers of character and life help this book feel much more real than most genre novels. In just this short passage there are at least three distinct layers: a unique problem within a seemingly simple problem; a clash of cultures; and two individual personalities within those cultures. And there are some clever bits and bobs on top (for instance, all the alien species are given a different language’s name for “foreigner”: Farang, Gaijin, Alien, etc.).
Additionally, Richardson uses a mix of blog posts, IM transcripts and real-world narration that allow him to slip in a whole lot of world-building on the sly. If aliens really landed, everyone would be reading and watching accounts of the alien, and a game review blog wouldn’t need to rehash what everybody already knows, but would make reference to it. This makes it so you eventually have a pretty good understanding of what’s happening and what the aliens look like, even though Richardson never stops the story to spell it out for us.
For instance, here’s what happens when Ariel finally gets a translation (note the alien detail at the end):
ABlum: who can i thank for translating this?
Curic: I will send you an achievement graph.
ABlum: no your achievement graphs have 10 million nodes i don’t want to thank the whole damn constellation just tell me the name of one person who i can buy a beer
Curic: If you looked at the graph you would see a distinctive bottleneck: the Small Batch Data Cleanup Overlay, who translated between old versions of SAME and various human languages at the request of the History of Life Overlay.
ABlum: ok who is in charge of the data cleanup overlay?
Curic: That’s not a real question.
ANYHOW, I offer big thanks to a randomly selected member of the Small Batch Data Cleanup Overlay. That’d be Jeroen Vivekananda of Peregrini Ring, Ring City. I would buy you a beer, Jeroen, but your body heat would vaporize the beer before you could swallow it. So, instead, accept this mention on my blog.
It’s also telling that most of the passages I highlighted span multiple paragraphs, if not pages. Richardson writes with sparkling prose, but his conceptual imagery is what makes this novel truly great.
Where Ready Player One was a superficial, nostalgic fluff piece, Constellation Games is a carefully imagined piece of real science fiction. I’d recommend it to anybody looking for good, fun sci-fi.