Book Review: Constellation Games / Author: Leonard Richardson / Publisher: Candlemark & Gleam / Release Date: Out Now
I am as guilty as the next person of judging books by their covers. Part of me believes that an artist worth their salt would be inspired by a wonderful novel and create a matching masterpiece that sums up the very essence of the tale on one striking image. Or at the very least take a single moment and make it a visual treat.
But here we have a cover of grey shapes that – only after a few moments - is identifiable as a hand controller for a (non copyright infringing) games console. The reason for this image is obvious but hardly inspiring. Maybe an image of someone playing space invaders with genuine space ships would have been too obvious, but what do I know?
Beyond the distracting disappointment of the cover lies a true gem of a book.
If Douglas Copland wrote sci-fi this is the sort of novel he would produce. Witty and firmly anchored in the mundane, while showing flashes of sarcastic brilliance that don’t distract from the ongoing narrative.
The basic plot concerns Ariel, a perfectly normal and largely disgruntled games designer, and his reaction to an alien fleet making first contact. It is presented so well that it is now quite hard to imagine first contact going any other way.
Aliens show up via the gift of a wormhole and begin mining the moon for materials to build a space station. He reasons that, if the aliens have computers, they must have computer games. And Ariel knows his computer games. As a game programmer and obsessive game reviewer, he wants to study and translate the aliens’ videogames.
The narrative is littered with chat room dialog between friends and aliens, reviews of games specifically created for this novel and enough pop culture references to placate your inner geek while not so many as to instantly date the book.
With some notable exceptions (Ian Banks' Fritz Leiber and Dicks) there isn’t a lot of Sci-fi dealing with the actual gaming aspects of alien culture. In film/TV we have episodes of Trek, Sarah Jane and (the most obvious) Last Star Fighter. But these largely use games in a different way. Richardson seems to have done something different and truly significant with it.
In the novel there are a multitude of intriguing characters such as Curic, an alien whose mind has allowed it to become mixed up in two different conspiracies as to what to do with humans now that contact has been made. Or Tetsuo, another alien with a need to teach increasingly odd collage courses as well as impart knowledge about alien computer games. The main problem that the aliens seem to have is that most of the aliens previous contacts seem be fossilized/long dead civilizations or worse ones that suffer an advanced form of culture shock at learning they are not alone.
There are also well drawn human characters a-plenty to give the most geek friendly view of an earth visitation you will find this side of Clark. This is a simply impressive first novel. Expect great things from Richardson in future.
Don’t just take my word for it. The first two chapters are available for free download from the publisher as well as a variety of downloadable/serialised versions for your electronic device. All this on top of the trusty paperback format.