Ariel Blum is pushing thirty and doesn’t have much to show for it. His computer programming skills are producing nothing but pony-themed video games for little girls. His love life is a slow-motion train wreck, and whenever he tries to make something of his life, he finds himself back an the couch, replaying the games of his youth.
Out of the sky comes the Constellation: a swarm of anarchist anthropologists, exploring our seas, cataloguing our plants, editing our wikis and eating our Twinkies. No one knows how to respond – except far nerds like Ariel who’ve been reading, role-playing and wargaming first-contact scenarios their entire lives. Ariel sees the aliens’ computers, and knows that wherever there are computers, there are video games. Ariel just wants to start a business translating alien games so they can be played on human computers. But a simple cultural exchange turns up ancient secrets, government conspiracies, and unconventional anthropology techniques that threaten humanity as we know it. If Ariel wants his species to have a future, he’s going to have to take the step that nothing on Earth could make him take: he’ll have to grow up.
The back-cover blurb (above) gives a fair overview of the content. What sets this apart from others in the “worst choice of human for alien first contact” sub-genre is the style: a combination of blog posts and alien game reviews. Discovering millennia of alien history through playing their video games provides interesting insights, but trying to do it essentially all this way is maybe a step too far.
The aliens are about as useless as the humans, too. They are in several minds (some more so than others) about what to do about earth: they were expecting to find the usual post-self-annihilation scenario, and are a bit bemused about the pre/ongoing-self-annihilation scenario they encounter instead.
Personally, I prefer “competence porn” style tales, rather than “loveable (allegedly) man-child and evil hapless bureaucrats bumble through world-changing events”. I never find the latter as funny as I am supposed to. There’s quite enough incompetence in real life thank-you-very-much; I read for escapism. However, things do pick up as Ariel begins to realise the seriousness of the situation and starts doing stuff. Although how effectively remains a question.
Despite their uselessness, I did nevertheless like the aliens. They are alien in many ways, both physically and psychologically; in fact, some of the physical descriptions had me flashing back to Sector General tales. Their “Constellation” idea for group working is intriguing; the eventual explanation of its genesis adding an unexpected layer. I also liked the fact that Ariel is effortlessly at ease with these aliens, unlike many of his earth-side relationships.
But all in all, I felt there was more interesting stuff going on behind the scenes than in main view. What was up with the Martian sub-plot? What were all the other aliens doing (we only see a handful)? What does the rest of the galaxy look like (these aliens are atypical)? Just what was the code Ariel wrote to reconfigure the habitat? Is the posed solution to uploading workable? And so on.