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Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

Constellation Games

by Leonard Richardson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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11212107,804 (3.7)14
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When aliens show up and say they want to give us lots of knowledge, Ariel Blum (reluctant programmer of pony games for girls and game reviewer, also male—born just before The Little Mermaid came out) asks for their video games. The aliens comply, leading to this mostly epistolary/bloggary novel in which Ariel reviews alien games, tries to translate the games into something that would be commercially successful on Earth, deals with threatening Men in Black, goes up in space, meets lots of aliens with incompatible worldviews, and basically lives out his dreams while discovering that he’s still the same unhappy person who had the dreams in the first place. Also the aliens are trying to save the world and some of them are trying to keep humanity from disappearing into culture shock. This wasn’t for me—I think if I’d played more video games I might’ve gotten more out of what’s obviously some kind of dialogue with actual game reviews. [Insert “it’s about ethics in video game journalism” joke here.] ( )
  rivkat | Nov 17, 2014 |
My favorite new book in years. Excellent review by Cory Doctorow here: http://boingboing.net/2013/02/20/constellation-games-debut-sf.html
A multi-species first contact mission comes to Earth, and a game developer decides to investigate their database of all knowledge... for classic video games from the aliens' own early technological history. While writing blog reviews of 20 million year old games and trying to port one to human consoles (we can't see radio waves, so there are interface challenges), he's recruited by a helpful alien club called "Save the Humans" (along with "Plan B" in case that doesn't work out). At first it seems they just want to help mitigate climate change, but he gradually realizes it might be a bit more like a Star Trek "Prime Directive" culture shock fiasco in the making, and his experience with games gives him a unique perspective.
This book is funny, clever, and amazingly creative and original (with alien cultures that feel *alien* for a change, along with a few who are charmingly human). The game reviews are hilarious; the book is worth it just for those, but it really ends up being personal and character driven, with some quite beautiful and reflective moments.
It's only $5 on iTunes for an eBook version.
  Clevermonkey | May 29, 2014 |
Brilliant, funny, clever. This is a great perspective on first contact with a very old alien confederation, set in pretty much the current day.

I liked how the use of blog entries and letters augmented the 1st person viewpoint. The story is otherwise entirely told through Ariel's eyes. And what I really liked was how big of a story can be told from such a limited viewpoint. Other authors have accomplished this but it is rare.

I also enjoyed how alien video games from millions of years ago were mapped onto the current situation. Modern human video games and their industry were also comprehensively aped, but no real game was referenced. Unless I missed where "Temple Sphere" was released, lol. Ariel's explanation of video game company behavior was too funny because it felt too true. You'll get a huge kick out of it you are any sort of industry watcher (reading sources like Gamasutra, Polygon, Penny Arcade or similar sites).

Ariel had just about the right mix of "OMG aliens!" and "hey, want a beer, lizard-dude?" He proved to be a very likeable character. Harmless but not quite hapless. His love stories were poignant and I can only hope that in the time after this novel he finally "gets the girl."

Absolutely loved the portrayal of Earth bureaucracies. The Homeland Security extension was hysterical yet probably what would happen.

There is one aspect to the story I did not "get." I'll poke through the other reviews and see if someone else has an idea about this. The largest issue facing the contact scenario is the 70-years-until-full-exposure to the Constellation. I get that such exposure is likely to consume our culture and 90% of us would chose to be uploaded, to become Slow People. If we branch out to extraterrestrial colonies that percentage conversion will drop. I get that too.

What I don't get is, why is preventing full culture contact and delaying uploading desirable? The author explicitly mentions, if only one time, this is the normal course of events and only aliens who volunteer for contact missions think it is less than desirable, because they are themselves abnormal. I'm not sure why Ariel jumps on the meat-wagon instead of rooting for virtualization.

Read this book! Mr. Richardson deserves to be noticed. ( )
  Penforhire | Oct 16, 2013 |
Earth is visited by aliens, past of a vast galactic population. As they discover, culture shock is a killer. Important cogs in the political struggle between alien factions who don't necessarily want this to happen is a game designer and his friends, and an old database of alien video game information to be analysed.

http://freesf.strandedinoz.com/wordpress/2013/05/constellation-games-leonard-ric... ( )
  BlueTysonSS | May 30, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What kinds of videogames would aliens make? Maybe I'm simply unaware of it, but I'm pretty sure this topic has never been tackled by science fiction before. In Constellation Games, humanity makes contact with the Constellation, a Star Trek-esque conglomeration of alien species working together in a post-scarcity society. The first thought of the government is that it's an invasion. The first thought of Ariel Blum, a freelance computer programmer who mostly works on a series of Brazilian games about ponies for girls, is that he wants to review the aliens' games on his blog.

Constellation Games alternates between Ariel's blog and straight first-person narration from Ariel, with chat conversations and letters and such interspersed. The Constellation takes a multifaceted approach to their contact with Earth, and so Ariel soon finds himself in possession of a replica of a millions-of-years-old Constellation gaming console, along with tons of games. It's a short hop from the idea of reviewing a game to porting one; he wants to help his fellow human understand aliens by releasing one of their games.

Without a doubt, the best parts of Constellation Games are the game reviews. There are several alien species in the Constellation and we not only see games for multiple species, but games that one of those species made off another, and yet Richardson never fails to communicate the alien nature of the games while still making them seem like plausible games. I loved these sections: the game Sayable Spice, where the player collects components of taste molecules, comes up a lot, but Blum (and Richardson) show how a good game doesn't just have an interesting mechanic; it can say something, too. There's one bit where Ariel plays a game called Gatekeeper where you guard the boundary between life and death, "let[ting] normal traffic through, while flicking away dead people who shouldn't be living (zombies) and living people who shouldn't be dying (suicides?)" (33). Ariel's alien contact, Curic, sends him a message to dispute that they are not zombies, they're people who "want a refund." Ariel says that's the same thing, and she replies:

Curic: Zombies are fully dead people who come back to life for no reason.
What you are seeing is when one half of a person dies, the other half wants a refund.
Otherwise the entire person will die in a few hours.
ABlum: who gives out the refunds?
Curic: There are no refunds.
That's the point of the game.

A whole alien biology and culture, expressed via inscrutable game mechanics!

Even aside from that, it's a surprisingly good novel. I guess I was expecting something like Taft 2012, the last high-concept sf novel I read, but Richardson gives Blum a strong narrative voice, that while idiosyncratic, never grates, and surrounds him with characters that perhaps initially seem stereotypical, but soon begin to betray extra levels of depth, both human and alien. Tetsuo Milk, the alien paleontologist who eventually becomes a history lecturer at the University of Texas, was probably my favorite, and the transcript of his first lecture is amazing. There are even some bits that approach being genuinely moving. It's also funny at times-- you can't underestimate the importance of that! The Constellation are a well fleshed out group of aliens, who avoid feeling too stereotypical in their types of social interactions (I loved the idea of "overlays").

At 357 pages, the plot meanders a bit. The back cover and some early passages imply there's a conspiracy to uncover, but that turns out to not be true at all; the plot is much more character focused. As such, the book ends the way that people's experiences actually end: frustratingly open-ended. What happens to Ariel and his friends next? I find myself wanting to know, but I'm not dissatisfied with the way the book ended; it came to the exact right spot.

Constellation Games is a love letter to videogames and certain elements of geek culture, that's for sure, but it's not a polemic; it shows both the marvelous possibilities of gaming, but also how it often fails to achieve its full potential-- and why. It's an engaging, original way to explore an alien society, but also ourselves, like all the best science fiction should. I rocketed through it (often drawn into a chapter on the basis of just reading that next game review), and I'd happily read more sf by Richardson should he choose to write it.
3 vote Stevil2001 | Jun 18, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
How would you react if aliens came to Earth? I’m not talking about Independence Day, The Darkest Hour, Cowboys vs. Aliens sort of aliens. No, more like foreign anthropologists, come to study our ways of life and catalogue everything on the planet, bringing world-changing technology. A society that has been around for millions of years.
added by psybre | editWired / GeekDad, Jonathan Liu (Jan 4, 2012)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leonard Richardsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sobolowski, ChrisCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sullivan, KateDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Sumana, again, and all the time.
First words
What the hell is up with the moon?
"Curic, what was that you said to the immigration guy?" I said. Bai backed us out of the parking space and honked at some rubberneckers.
Curic took her tongue out again. "K'chua!" she said.
"Don't be a guy who feels bad," said Tetsuo. "Nobody ever knows what to do. Our life-task is to decide what to do."
"Coercion is how coercive rules are enforced," said Curic. "Nobody enforces the rules of a game. Nobody makes photons carry the electromagnetic force. That's just how the world works."
"They wanted us to change," said Tetsuo. "They came to our planet and they wouldn't shut up about fluid overlays and unhierarchical forms of social organization. We felt like we had to listen to them, because they were so powerful. But secretly we thought of them as monsters from space. And now here we are at your planet, and we are the monsters from space."
"Why'd you come here? Why even bother?"
"Don't you want to be a monster from space, too?"
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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