Sunday, October 09, 2005

Review: "Only You Can Save Mankind" by Terry Pratchett

Best known for his massive Discworld series, Terry Pratchett has also occasionally ventured outside that milieu for a book or two. One of those was the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy in the early 1990s. The first book, "Only You Can Save Mankind," ($15.99, HarperCollins) has just been re-released with a few, very minor updates.

Life hasn't been good to 12-year-old Johnny Maxwell lately. His parents are going through Trying Times, and the Gulf War is plastered on his television screen every night. One of his favorite escapes is a game, pirated by his hacker friend Wobbler, called "Only You Can Save Mankind." Unfortunately, this time when he logs on to blow away the invading ScreeWees, the aliens want to make peace with him. They surrender and ask for his protection.

When he falls asleep that night, Johnny finds himself at the helm of the fighter ship leading the ScreeWee fleet back to its homeworld and protecting it from other gamers. Soon thousands of computer users around the world are turning on the game to empty screens where there should be attacking aliens. Gamers aren't happy, and neither are some of the aliens aboard the ScreeWee mother ship.

On the surface, Pratchett's tale is a fun story of a boy living a video game adventure. It's not exactly a new premise. It's been around since video games first started popping up in the early 1980s, but how many of those stories have you read where the aliens surrender, changing the boy's world view?

And that's what sets this apart from the average children's science fiction novel. Anyone who has ever read Pratchett knows that he's an excellent satirist. While the satire here is a little more obvious than in his usual work, it's just as effective. The constant backdrop to the story is the 1991 Gulf War, which with the smart bombs and other technology was a lot like a video game itself.

Pratchett uses the story to illustrate the dangers of that kind of war and how easy it is to forget that we're shooting at other people. In video games, no one gets hurt. Right?

"Only You Can Save Mankind" is enjoyable for younger readers, but there are plenty of jokes for those of us that remember Atari 2600s, too. I particularly enjoyed a thread on the burned out hulls of Space Invaders that Johnny and the fleet pass. If you missed this one the first time around, now's a good time to check it out.

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