This one’s a science fiction thriller taking place in hot spots all across our solar system, with aliens and conspiracies and interesting tech and culture. This was solid three star material, but felt more like an excerpt from a novel than a stand alone novelette. The characters are okay, the action is okay, and the setting is very, very good… but this just didn’t quite come together in the end.
I loved the whole idea of titular game, though:
B’tok was to chess as chess was to rock-paper-scissors. For starters, b’tok was four-dimensional and could only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of a b’tok game icon depended on its 3- D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolved. It developed turn by turn, and the view differed by side. A player saw only as far as his pieces had explored. The dynamics tended to undo any equilibrium that might arise between rivals; it was a rare match that ended in a draw.
That’s actually a pretty good amalgam of several abstract games that have come out in the past decade or so: Lasca, Hive, Octi, Tamsk. I could not read that passage without trying to work out how to actually design it! Of course, the gameplay that is described later on is not like what I imagined from this. I’ve also got to say though that the idea that the real world political maneuverings would mirror what could on with the game is one that I didn’t feel truly got paid off in the end. Oh, there was spy versus spy and cloak and dagger, sure. But if you set up a character as being some kind of brilliant grand marshal that can see six moves ahead, then you’re on the hook to dazzle me with a Bobby Fisher style combination at some point.
But a crazy Xanatos Gambit just isn’t what we get. Instead… we have to endure some space alien Illuminati scheme and the tinfoil hat types that are hot on their trail. The way it plays out makes me long for the old spy movies that came out before cell phones and the internet. It makes me wonder how anyone can even have an adventure anymore these days. Mars is barren. Venus is a hell world. Earth is so explored that there’s no longer room for millenia old civilizations in Antarctica or deep within the earth. Instead of having the protagonist drop kick a heavy and make off with an alien babe that looks mysteriously like Yvonne Craig, Edward Lerner serves up a couple bland professionals that sit on park bench and mentally text each other about some sort of fake business trip. It ends up being a whole chapter just to set up a fifteen minute conversation.
Please tell me the future isn’t this boring.
This piece to me is emblematic of why I just haven’t bothered to read the big long-running science fiction magazines starting about two decades ago. In the first place, I just don’t expect to get something like this which, you know, at least tries to be “real” science fiction. But even for the stuff that’s otherwise on point, it’s always seemed to me that the editors favor these sort of overwrought, overly bland “serious” works that lack the sort of cogency that I expect from great fiction. Somehow this is supposed to be “real” science fiction while the stuff I like (apparently) is not. I don’t buy that. And I know Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, and A Merritt are long gone… but I do expect people to try.