Book Review: “Only You Can Save Mankind” by Terry Pratchett

January 21, 2018

In an introduction to the first book of his Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Discworld author Terry Pratchett apologizes for having written the book during the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. This may help to explain the primitive state of computer games, corded telephones, and the slang bantered around by British schoolkids in this book. It isn’t strange to me; I lived through those years. All this could have happened to me, if I had been a mild, miserable, yet highly imaginative English lad named Johnny Maxwell.

Only You Can Save Mankind is the title of the latest computer game pirated by Johnny’s fat hacker pal Wobbler. It’s only a step or so beyond Space Invaders (remember? anybody?), in which the player has to blow up alien spaceships from one-seater fighters to the huge mothership. Johnny is doing quite well at it until, just before he fires the kill-shot at the alien mothership, a message comes on his screen: WE WANT TO TALK.

There’s nothing about that in the manual.

At a point in history when real-world wars were starting to look like video games, a video game has turned out to be a real war. How? Where? It’s not easy to explain. Maybe not in our universe, as such. But not just in Johnny’s imagination, either. In some realm of existence best described as “game space,” the ScreeWee armada is just trying to get to the border of their space. If players like Johnny keep blowing up their ships, none of them will ever get there.

So now, instead of shooting at aliens, Johnny has to protect them. Now that they’ve surrendered to him, he owes them safe conduct to their border. But it’s no picnic when other human players keep popping up, rayguns blazing. Each of them may be a “hero with a thousand extra lives,” but the ScreeWee get to die only once. Keeping that from happening is now Johnny’s responsibility.

It’s a lot of responsibility for a kid who ordinarily doesn’t fight back. When a girl with a type-A personality – the kind of girl who wins at everything she tries – goes gunning for the ScreeWee, Johnny has a tough enemy on his hands. Or maybe a friend. But it’s got to be a strange friendship when she recalls him among his circle of friends not as the skinhead (Bigmac), or the fat one (Wobbler), or the uncool black one (Yo-less), but as the other one nobody ever notices.

Johnny Maxwell is the quintessentially English hero. He’s a weird kid. Weird things happen to him, and he rolls with them. You’ll enjoy this adventure in “game space,” proving that video games don’t need high-resolution graphics to fire the imagination. Complete with bizarre aliens, suspense, action, and the goofy patter of Johnny’s misfit friends, it’s a quirky fantasy that will draw young readers into its special world. Then be sure to read the sequels, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb.

Interested? Buy a copy here.