Like The Best of All Possible Worlds before it, The Galaxy Game is a restrained space opera committed to splitting the difference between sweeping themes and smaller, sweeter story beats. It achieves this by focusing on unsuspecting characters caught up in machinations more elaborate than they can imagine—a pretty typical trajectory, to be sure, but don’t be fooled, folks: This is the most normal thing about these extraordinary novels, which take the tropes of science fiction as starting points and twist them both conceptually and intellectually.
In place of the love story of Karen Lord’s last, The Galaxy Game gives us a study of spacefaring infrastructure-cum-coming of age chronicle of a boy from The Best of All Possible Worlds. The son of the previous protagonist’s sorry sister, Rafi Abowen Delarua also happens to have inherited the same ability to influence that his abusive father made such dubious use of—so, for a year he’s been left to languish in the Lyceum.
The sinister facility’s mandate—“to bring together all the rogue and random psi-gifted of Cygnus Beta and teach them ethics, restraint and community”—is simple; deceptively so, Rafi realises, when his masters make plain their plans to cap him.
Only “the crazies, the criminals and the ones who’d set themselves on fire by accident” are watched in this way—only those who would harm themselves or others have their prospects so summarily scotched—yet Rafi has done nothing wrong. If anything, he’s overdone ordinariness. He’s been so very well-behaved that his supervisors are singularly suspicious, and I’m afraid there’s no dissuading them:
If he had remained at the homestead, he could have used his majority to take up work at another homesteading with no need for permission or blessing. If he had remained there and the past two years had not happened and there was no cap with his name attached to it. If he had remained there and never had a father—only a mother, a sister and a normal household with the ordinary struggle of selfishness and love.
But he had a family that was not normal and a brain that was not normal and the government [of Cygnus-Beta] was too interested in both.
Thus, Rafi runs. With his aunt’s assistance, and accompanied by his crafty friend Ntenman, he runs to the planet Punartam, where abilities such as his are the norm and not the exception. Indeed, a whole industry has arisen around the psi-gifted—a game known variously as Messenger, Wallrunning and Cliffchase which Rafi is enraptured by:
Anyone could understand the game with a glance. Players ran and climbed and slid from the base of the Wall to the top. They obstructed their opponents and carried their mates. They moved together as closely as possible; a scattered team lost weight and leverage in more ways than one. They tried to tilt the Wall in their favour, making it easy for even the weakest to reach the goal. That was the game at first glance and many supporters needed no more to enjoy their wins and mourn their losses. For those who knew, there was more, much more. […] The true aficionados knew that the key to the game was in the hands of the strategists, a pair of players who never ran or climbed but stood before the Wall, working at low-slanted grids on easels and orchestrating the moves of their team with pre-programmed manoeuvres coordinated through the push and pull of grav-bands on their wrists.
Whatever you want to call it, Messenger is much more than a game: It’s a metaphor for the goings-on in the galaxy of Lord’s novels. “Without the Sadiri to keep us all peaceful and polite,” alliances are crumbling, opposing forces are emboldened, and when a terrorist attack—which Rafi witnesses—makes travel by mindship practically impossible, there is everything to play for, and nothing less than the lot to lose.
This Ntenman knows. As well he should, too; he is, after all, the son of a powerful player in the titular galaxy game, who rather takes after his father. To wit, one wonders: Might there be more to his relationship with Rafi than meets the eye?
By the point I knew what you now do about this book, I was engrossed, and my interest—my investment in Rafi and in a marvellous milieu subtly and smartly expanded—only increased as The Galaxy Game advanced towards its satisfying, if far from happily-ever-after finale. Unfortunately, in the first instance, Lord doesn’t make it easy.
It bears repeating: The Best of All Possible Worlds is a truly awesome novel. You really should have read it already. If you haven’t, however, don’t waste your time playing The Galaxy Game. It’s not even slightly standalone—though it could have been, and surely should have been, given that its connections to its predecessor add less than The Galaxy Game loses by dint of its dependence.
Folks familiar with the fiction are apt to have a hard time, too. Lord makes little attempt to bring returning readers back up to speed, and a wealth of almost pointless perspectives drown out Rafi’s in the first act. In truth, it takes too long for his thread to emerge, much less become fully-fledged… but when it does, the game changes. The Wall slants suddenly skyward; the runners muster to move as one; and the strategists who had stood to the side show themselves. With plot and purpose and a protagonist at last, the pieces fall into place:
The balconies were filled with spectators and their focus was the opposite wall, which sparkled like a constellation of dancing stars. The Wallrunners moved like divers, like acrobats, with light strapped to their waists, wrists and ankles. This was not a game. This was pure artistry.
There’s no getting around the fact that The Galaxy Game lacks for the larger part the momentum of its predecessor, and it is, at times, somewhat muddled. But when clarity comes, it’s every bit the book The Best of All Possible Worlds was: a smart science fictional fable as inventive and involving as it is finally vital.
The Galaxy Game is published by Del Rey. It comes out January 6.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.