Only You Can Save Mankind
(The Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Book 1)
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year-old Johnny Maxwell didn't play computer games like some of his friends did, to dissect their secrets or beat top scores. He just wanted
help escaping the Trying Times he's going through, with his parents stomping and yelling and the news full of desert maps and missiles... and his buddy, Wobbler, always
gives him pirated copies of the top-rated games for free. But when Johnny boots up the latest alien-shooter craze, Only You Can Save Mankind, something strange happens. Instead of trying to destroy him, the ScreeWee fleet surrenders. Now they want Johnny to give them safe passage to their homeworld, defending them from other gamers. Maybe Wobbler hacked the game for a joke, or the manufacturer included an Easter egg that the manual didn't talk about... or maybe all these games he and his friends play connect to something stranger and deeper, something with consequences beyond a high-score screen.
REVIEW: Written during Operation Desert Storm, this book attempts to deconstruct humanity's paradoxical relationship with war and games, and the disconnect with
reality that both engender. Being a middle-grade title, it can be a trifle heavy-handed with its messages, but it never talks down to its audience or oversimplifies matters. Johnny is an average kid, part of a group of average, differently-talented and -challenged English schoolboys who are each, in their own ways, trying to figure out their lives and their complicated world. The desert war starts out as a backdrop, something to be ignored unless it preempts their favorite TV shows, but as Johnny becomes drawn deeper into the ScreeWee conflict (via increasingly-realistic dreams, plus waking-world developments in the game), he starts making connections that elude many grown-ups, seeing the "games" that make up life and realizing that the only way they'll ever change is if people stop being slaves to the perceived rules and start working to change them. As usual for Pratchett, he gets in some good side-digs at other issues, particularly sexism and racism and the ways people deny, downplay, and justify their treatment of others. The story moves decently and has some real bite, looking war and death straight in the eye and not allowing the characters or the reader to flinch. The games may seem a little dated to modern young readers, but Pratchett does a decent job capturing the culture (at least as it existed back then), and the general tone of computer games has stayed remarkably constant even with upgrades in processing power and plots: it still often boils down to "kill the Other and win," be they 8-bit pixel ships or 3D, AI-driven hordes. A few minor threads didn't quite come together, though this is the first of a trilogy, even if the ScreeWee storyline appears to wrap up here. All in all, it's a good read.
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