Pratchett, Terry. Only You Can Save Mankind.

NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Terry Pratchett requires no introduction, being one of the most-read authors in English, and for very good reasons. The Discworld novels have a wide, enthusiastic fan base of all ages (including me for many years), but his other books may not be so well known, especially those written specifically, theoretically, for adolescents. Still, being Sir Terry’s work, they’re still very much worth reading — and, naturally, very, very funny.

Johnny Maxwell is a twelve-year-old resident of Blackbury, somewhere in the Midlands, who is just trying to survive school and with no particular plans for his life. He’s big on computer games (which were just beginning to reach maturity when this book was written) and on hanging out with a couple of similarly geekish friends. And one evening, he’s piloting his starfighter around the screen, wondering how many alien ships he can wipe out before he gets killed yet again, and has to go down to supper, when a message pops up: WE WISH TO TALK. And then, WE SURRENDER! PLEASE!

As Johnny will soon discover, “gamespace” isn’t as separate from Real World space as he had always assumed. Despite their overwhelming material advantage, the aliens aren’t really very good at fighting — if they were, no teenager would ever be able to win the game — and they just want to go home. If they surrender to The Chosen One, then he’s responsible for looking after them. The Geneva Conventions say so. And Johnny, being a good kid, takes on the job. But there are thousands of other game-players out there and it won’t be easy. And the alien Captain, who resembles a cross between a newt and an alligator, has other problems, too.

Pratchett has always been very good at characterization and Johnny’s buddies are a delight in themselves. The overweight Wobbler is a talented hacker with a Robin Hood complex who simply enjoys cracking the security of new games and then giving them away free to anyone who wants them. Bigmac lives in a drug-ridden council block and tries to pass himself off as a proto-skinhead, but he really doesn’t have the necessary take-no-prisoners personality. He’s also amazingly good at math, but he’d never admit it. And there’s Yo-less, who is as far from the archetypal black kid (or what the others think an archetypal black kid should be) as it’s possible to get.

There’s a lot here about family relationships, too, and Johnny’s own family isn’t doing so well. It’s Trying Times for his folks and he’s currently fixing all his own meals. Still, as Wobbler notes, “It’s not that bad when your mum and dad split up. Although you get to see more museums than is good for you.” Pratchett is really good at combining a well-written, hilarious plot with the making of serious points about life and the universe.

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Published in: on 27 April 2017 at 4:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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