Terry Pratchett,
Only You Can Save Mankind
(Doubleday, 1992)

The games I played in my misspent youth, first in video arcades and later on my home computer, were pretty damn cool. There wasn't much in the way of high-resolution technology back then, or even more than a few colors at best, but there was something fun, something pure, about battling hordes of polygonal alien invaders hell-bent on destroying the Earth.

But what if they didn't want to fight any more? What if, just as I lined up my sights to wreak major mayhem on the mothership, I got a message of surrender?

Sure, no game was programmed to do such a thing. Where's the fun in making peace, after all? But Terry Pratchett has proposed just that sort of game in his short novel Only You Can Save Mankind.

In a market dominated by Pratchett's Discworld series, this thin volume has escaped a lot of people's notice. That's a shame, 'cause it's a damn fine book. It has very real-seeming characters, set against a very real-seeming backdrop of modern England. And young Johnny Maxwell, a 12-year-old school dweeb who spends far too much time playing games on his computer, doesn't know how to react when the evil ScreeWee aliens sue for peace. When he grudgingly grants it -- he didn't like the game much, anyway -- they beg for safe conduct back to their space. Soon, Johnny is flying escort to a ragtag fleet, protecting it by blowing up ships piloted by young video gamesters around the globe.

He took some convincing. Entering into an argument with the ScreeWee captain, he asserts: "You shoot at us as well!" "Self-defence," she responds. "No!" he counters. "Often you shoot first!"

"With humans," the alien captain replies, "we have often found it essential to get our self-defence in as soon as possible."

Johnny learns that, when he or another Earthling is "killed" in the game, they have the option of starting over. The ScreeWees do not. They die. Game over. And not really a game to the ScreeWees, after all.

And so, as Desert Storm plays itself out on the TV news and his parents battle out their pending divorce downstairs, Johnny tries to save as many of the ScreeWees as he can. That isn't always easy, especially when a talented young flyer named Kirsty, a.k.a. Sigourney, proves herself to be the better space ace who really wants to kick some alien butt.

But Johnny plugs on, dutifully following that thing called a conscience which is so often forgotten these days.

Only You Can Save Mankind is bursting with the kind of humor that has made Pratchett a major presence in the fantasy market. And if there's a bit of a message in there about the modern sanitation of violence -- well, we won't let that interfere with our fun, shall we?

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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