Wed
Oct 1 2008 12:10pm
The hero with a thousand extra lives: Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind

I once asked Terry Pratchett why his work for grown-ups was so much sillier than his work for children. “Children can be more serious about important things,” he said.

And that’s why my favourite of his books is Only You Can Save Mankind. It has its jokes and funny moments, but it’s essentially a very serious book about the big issues of life, death, how you interact with the world, and what the victory conditions are.

The premise of the book is simple and irresistible: Johnny Maxwell, an ordinary twelve year old, is playing a computer game and shooting aliens, when the aliens unexpectedly surrender.

“Aliens in a computer game are real” has been done before, of course, but what Pratchett does is closer to Alice in Wonderland than Ender’s Game. I wonder what “realistic” means sometimes. The ScreeWee are real in the story. The kids are killing them. After they surrender and retreat, the game looks empty to everyone playing it. So far, so realistically science-fictional.

But Johnny goes into the game in his dreams, and the reality there is a dream reality, affected in a fantasy way. There’s also the way it’s simultaneously real and important and impossible to explain to adults, which is more true to the realities of childhood and early adolescence than any other book I can think of. It reaches the emotional verities.

The characters and setting are also very real, in their early nineties way. (The book is explicitly set at the time of the First Gulf War, with references to “Stormin’ Norman” and bombs falling like a computer game.) They live in small town Britain with housing estates and McDonalds and Indian take-aways. The kids hang around and talk about nothing, they copy each other’s homework, they worry about divorcing parents and seeming cool. People are supposed to like books because they identify with the characters, and Only You does have a character who is embarassingly like me at thirteen:

with a dozen sharp pencils and no friends, getting top marks in her History homework, while in her head she was chasing aliens.

But I have to say I’m glad not to be Kirsty (“Call me Sigourney,”) any more.

Pratchett isn’t such a superstar in the US as he is in Britain, and consequently this, and its sequels, have been published in the US relatively recently, and as Young Adult. I wonder what modern teenagers make of them, if they seem as dated and British as Enid Blyton. Or maybe those things lend them charm, as the America of science fiction had charm for me as a teenager. I don’t think it’s true that people want to read about other people exactly like themselves anyway.

But my favourite moment in the book is one where I do identify. Johnny, in his dream in which he is in his spaceship escorting the aliens out of game-space, sees something:

It was a huge ship. Or at least it had been. Quite a lot of it had been melted off.

It drifted along, absolutely dead, tumbling very gently. It was green, and vaguely triangular, except for six legs, or possibly arms. Three of them were broken stubs. It looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus, designed by a computer and made out of hundreds of cubes bolted together.

As the giant hulk turned he could see huge gashes in it, with melted edges. There was a suggestion of floors inside.

He switched on the radio.

“Captain?”

Yes?

“Can you see this thing here? What is it?”

We find them sometimes. We think they belonged to an ancient race, now extinct. We don’t know what they called themselves or where they came from. The ships are very crude.

The dead ship turned slowly. There was another long burn down the other side.

“I think they were called Space Invaders," said Johnny.

The human name for them?

“Yes.”

I thought so.”

The first time I read that it made me tear up. It’s not just the thought of that poor lost alien culture, it’s also that I had been unknowingly involved in that genocide. What Johnny learns is that what you do in games is in a way always real, in that it is still you who did it. The aliens may not be real and really die, but you really experienced them dying and didn’t think about it.

Only You Can Save Mankind is an old fashioned book in that it has a moral. (As one would expect with Pratchett, it’s more gently suggested than hammered home.) The moral is that interacting primarily in a mode of killing and winning may not be the best way of going through life.

I haven’t reformed since reading it, though. I killed the unicorn in Oblivion only last year.

7 comments
Sean Fagan
1. sef
I love the Johnny books. But every once in a while I think about what TP is doing to that poor kid, and it's super creepy.

(And, come on -- he's not an ordinary kid. Remember his response to Kristy's off-hand comment about finding a sleeping wizard in a cave?)
Kate Twiss
2. Karaden
This is the book that got me hooked on Terry Pratchett. The Discworld series is great and all, but I'll always have a special place on my bookshelf reserved for the Johnny Trilogy.
Arachne Jericho
3. arachnejericho
Before I read Discworld, but after Good Omens, I read the Johnny trilogy. They're all excellent.

I especially loved Johnny and the Dead, where Johnny has to save a graveyard from being renovated by a company--and of course he gets to meet all the graveyard inhabitants (!). And I think Johnny and the Bomb grows on you. I wish there had been more Johnny books.

I like the secondary characters too, especially Yo-less.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
There are moments in the other two books that I love -- the advice given by the rich old man to his younger self which boils down to eat properly and exercise for instance -- but neither of the others hits quite the sweet spot for me that the first does.
Paul Andinach
5. anobium
*sigh*

I'd just installed a new game on my computer that I was looking forward to playing. Now I suspect it's going to wind up gathering dust next to the copy of StarCraft I bought just before I read Armor.

Can anybody recommend a good, engrossing computer game that revolves around not killing hordes of digital critters?
Torie Atkinson
6. Torie
@5 anobium

Civilization IV (you don't *have* to go to war, and when you do it's against enlisted enemy combatants who have accepted the risks). Knights of the Old Republic (if you like Star Wars, and combat is against individuals good or bad rather than innocents). Any Sierra world-building game (Zeus, Emperor). Probably Spore (haven't played it). Don't worry, you don't have to commit mass genocide or extinctions to have fun.
greenmanza
7. greenmanza
@5 anobium

I recommend the Gabriel Knight series of adventure games. They are more than 10 years old, but have a wonderful story, great details, and are very engrossing.

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