In September, I read Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo. You may remember the review because I spent most of it talking about how irrelevant context can alter our experience of a book. I had spent the first half of Redemption in Indigo bored, uncertain why I should care or why so many people raved about this work. Then things picked up, I began to get more attached, and the ending hit it out of the park. The ending contained a key with which I could better understand the story and my own reaction to it:
“For some in my audience, a tale is like a riddle, to be solved at the end. To them I say the best tales leave some riddles unanswered and some mysteries hidden. Get used to it. For others the tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute.”
It is a key I could have used at the end of Lord’s latest book The Galaxy Game, which is being published by Del Ray in January 2015. Once again, it took me 50 percent of the book to find a reason to care about what was happening. Then I waited, excited, for a key like the one I’d found in Redemption, for some clue that would help me understand why it had been necessary to read so many pages of underwhelming background story. But The Galaxy Game contains no such key, and I finished the book with a lot of uncomfortable questions. Do I just not like Lord’s story-telling style? (And it is the shape of her stories, not the writing itself, that fails to capture my attention.) And if I do not, whose fault is that? Shouldn’t I take the advice of Redemption’s narrator and get over my need for neat puzzles and solutions? Harumpf, I answered, harumpf. I like a good challenge, but for over half of TGG I was underwhelmed and, though interested in many of the details, uninterested in the bigger picture.
It wasn’t a solution I was looking for, just a reason to care. The first half of TGG introduces our narrators: Rafi, whose perspective we hear in third person, and Ntenman, whose perspective we hear in first. Both have telepathic powers and have been sent to a school with dubious methods for “training” telepathic folks—aka to make non-telepathic people feel more comfortable with their existence, to make them less of a perceived threat. Rafi is at the school because his telepathy scares his non-telepathic family and neighbors. Ntenman is there because his powers aren’t as strong as the rest of his highly telepathic birth culture, making him a bit of an outcast. The school, its purpose, and the conflicts therein were just a handful of the many interesting issues that the book explored cursorily and without the depth that would have turned them into truly interesting discussions. This made every new interesting point feel like more of a tease than an enjoyable new thought to chew.
After a few chapters, Rafi starts to learn a never-quite-sufficiently-explained game on a gravity “Wall”—was THIS “the galaxy game”? I kept asking myself—that he aspires to play, but isn’t very good at (at first). Ntenman is annoying and arrogant and generally unsympathetic. A lot of cultures and planets are introduced, and pod damn, I really could have used an epic-fantasy style map of the galaxy at the front of the book to keep them all straight. The volume of strange names and the new cultures and languages and customs was overwhelming, and by the end of the book I still couldn’t tell you who half of them were and how they, politically, connected to each other. Yet the entire story hinged upon being able to keep track of these facts because—I should have guessed it—the galaxy game referenced in the title is more Game of Thrones than Ender’s.
My confusion was compounded by Lord’s decision to begin the book with a prologue that immediately pelts the reader with planet/culture names and their translations in multiple languages. The information we receive in the prologue would have been more helpful at a later date, after we’d been given a reason to sit up and pay attention. As it was, the first pages were unpleasant, and on page three I was ready to give up. The hope that this confusing translation business meant language was going to be a recurring theme got me through the mess and past my desire to flee, but, wrong again, language would not play a major role.
Nothing I found interesting played a major role, and that remains my biggest critique: TGG lacks focus. Almost every detail was interesting, but focusing on one or two of these issues would have given me a reason to care, would have made my brain happy to stay for a long, if winding and sometimes tangential, chat. Instead I found myself begrudging the book my time. As in real life, characters move through time and space, grow and change, things happen, connections are or are not made. As in real life, it takes a narrative to make any of those things matter, and TGG could have used the kind of story that can turn a collection of details into something meaningful, something bigger than each individual piece.
When Rafi and Ntenman end up on another planet after a bit of a snafu, the story finally caught my interest. The Punarthai culture living on that planet was fascinating, and I loved reading about the culture shock and clash. Couldn’t Lord have cut the first half of the book, started on the exciting new planet, and given us the back story in another way?
Also of note—and this is rare—with TGG Lord has written an interplanetary sci fi story that contains (almost) no rocket ships. Nope. Instead people in TGG travel between planets from water source to water source by mind ship—ground to ground travel is dangerous, something about spreading disease if I understood correctly—that is to say by whale-like psychic animal in a mind meld that makes one organism out of all the passengers. It is a strange and wonderful concept, and, once again, I wish Lord had focused on it more. Instead it is just another thread we do not get to follow to any end. Lord has created a rich and fascinating world in TGG, and her inventions deserves the highest praise, but in the end it feels too much like reality—a random, if interesting, series of events in which time passes and people and societies grow and change.
Several times during the prologue, however, a voice that reminded me of the flippant and funny narrator of Redemption came through. But alas, my advanced reading copy specifically forbids me from quoting from the uncorrected proof. Alas alack, that voice rarely made an appearance thereafter.
I never quite managed to figure out how the characters introduced briefly in the prologue and afterward tied into the main story or who the fuck they were because I couldn’t keep track of all the names (maybe I needed a map and a chart). Did I mention that several characters change their names throughout the story? Because it wasn’t hard enough as it was. I was hopelessly lost, abbreviating names in my head as a memory aid, looking desperately to the author for a lifeboat that never came.
What The Galaxy Game did do well is showcase Lord’s control over narrative voice. The style in The Galaxy Game is vastly different from that in Redemption and also varies notably between TGG‘s two points of view. Though I didn’t manage to enjoy much of TGG, I couldn’t say it is poorly written; Lord is a talented writer. A different structure or a more functional way of presenting new information could have turned this into something I could love. But that might have been part of the problem: I really wanted to love this book, but there was no spark.
Ultimately, I’d have been better off paying attention to the advice of Redemption’s narrator. “For others the tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute.”
Then best to leave this book closed, I think, and replace what might have been a fun, though vicarious, experience of a life spent across planets and cultures with a real-life adventure of my own. Even if it has to happen without a mind ship.
Where I got it: Sent to me for review via NetGalley