Saturday, March 19, 2016


The miniature Potlatch convened in a meeting room at the main San Jose library today. There was a writer's workshop, which I hear went well; and I attended the Book of Honor discussion afterwards. About 20 people were there, and we had a lively hour and a half on Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson, who joined us via Skype for some 30 minutes to answer questions.

In the story, when a group of persons embark on a venture, they cast a "constellation", a visual pattern of points equal to their numbers, which then becomes their trademark. We did that at the beginning of our discussion, with a bunch of pennies, some nickels, and a quarter on the floor. We then tweeted a photo of it, and then told Richardson we'd done so and where he could find the image. He didn't sound too embarrassed that we were such fan-people.

I was not the only person to confess that I found a novel heavily steeped in computer games to be a bewildering or even offputting idea. Some of us found the book difficult or boring thereby, and persevered with it for other virtues. Only a few professed knowledge in this area, and praised the book's understanding of those fields. We talked about the characters, their motivations, what their functions were in the story, and whether they were too annoying for us to want to spend a novel with them. We discussed the serious themes in a comic novel, including its consideration of the fall of human civilization. We identified which other authors we were reminded of (me: Zelazny, Scalzi, and Westlake; others: Banks and Brin; Richardson: he was influenced by Douglas Adams and Ken MacLeod).

This is a first contact novel which, instead of beginning with humanity as a whole making a big fuss over this, focuses on just one guy, one of many humans individually contacted by the aliens. He's excited, but cool with the idea. He happens to be a video game designer, and asks the aliens about their video games. So they send him a catalog of 9-million-year-old video games, those being simple enough that they could be exported to human computers, and he forms a small company to trawl it for likely possibilities to translate and convert for the Earth market.

That's not a bad business plan, but it left the question of why I should wish to read a novel about it. By about page 80 I was getting pretty bored, but fortunately I'd taken the book up to the City for a day with nothing else on me to read, so I persevered. Gradually it got more interesting, as a larger, more world-influencing plot built up, though for long I wasn't sure I followed it.

I liked the witty prose (that's the Douglas Adams), the snarky aliens (that's the Scalzi: everybody loves snarky aliens), and the sequence where our hero is first contacted by the alien AI which struggles to understand his colloquial replies (which strongly reminded me of the conversations between Fred and the Starstone in Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand). I liked the sequence when the hero hires his best friend's virtual-reality girlfriend to translate the video games, having loaded the translation software into her memory banks, but is trying to keep this secret from the government agents shadowing him (who reminded me of the clumsy FBI men in Westlake's Why Me), so we simultaneously get real accounts of what's going on and the hero's blog posts in which she's disguised as a human with a pseudonym. It's rather complex, sophisticated storytelling.

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