This is a review of “Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner
This novelette lacks several of the critical elements that any string of words needs to tie it up into a story; the most glaring of these exposes itself as a regular disregard for continuity. It is impossible to tell if this story is actually a chapter of a larger story, or it is just half-written. I get the impression that this author may be able to write, and write stories, but this is not one of them. I will eventually pull out a reasonably good excuse for awarding one whole star to this novelette.
The first 1300 words or so (about 10% of the median length for a novelette) is a little character introduction for Captain Lyle Logan and his AI pilot Corrigan. They play chess, and bond, and then set out to investigate a downed MS129 autonomous mining spacecraft. Lyle suits up and examines the crash site to discover what might be a precision attack only to feel something poke him in his back and then “On the emergency radio band, a synthed voice directed, ‘Do not move.’”. Then Lyle and Corrigan are never heard about again, we also never hear anything described as an MS129. We have moved on, or at least the story has, and we don’t need to concern ourselves with those details anymore.
Next we are treated to the first of two chapters from the “Internetopedia”. In it we are introduced to an entire race of aliens known as Hunters or Snakes or K’vithians. We learn they have an “enclave” on a moon of Uranus as a result of some incident. We learn where their home-world star is in the earth’s night sky. We learn they evolved from pack-based carnivores and that because of this they have “developed an economic system of pure laissez-faire, caveat-emptor capitalism, centered on competing clan-based corporations.”. We do not, however, learn what they look like or are we provided any clues as to how they might interact with simple elements of a story, like characters. At first blush this might appear to be done to provide some expert reveal later on in the story, but no, eventually the author just tells you what they look like so you can catch up to what is going on.
“Snakes: Two arms, two legs, and a head. Upright posture. And there any resemblance to humans ended. Whippet-thin. Nostrils set flat in the plane of the face—and a third, upward-gazing eye set near the apex of the skull. Hairless and iridescent-scaled. Glimpses of retractable talons in each fingertip (and, as they wore sandals, each toe). The tallest Snakes stood a quarter meter shorter than she—“
During the course of this novelette we are also “introduced” to the mysterious “Interveners” . This species can apparently look like either Humans or Snakes (and probably whatevers) and have been intervening in Human development through undefined mechanisms for hundreds of millions of years, at least. The Interveners caused the Cambrian explosion of species. They whispered in Marry Shelly’s ear to help create the novel Frankenstein, and by the time this novelette rolls around they are planting bombs and making bad art.
There is something potentially interesting about reading a novelette about aliens where it is revealed that aliens influence the writing of books in order to change the future in which this novel about aliens is written. Unfortunately the author does not develop that spin well, and we are force-fed the notion that the novel Frankenstein prevented Humans from developing certain fruitful types of technology; the fact that I find such a premise preposterous may have made it difficult for me to understand it. Perhaps the author literally meant that the aliens “whispered in Mary Shelly’s ear” and simply wanted to infer that Lord Byron was an alien, and that, by inference, the Intervener aliens were “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”?
One thing the author did treat well was the idea of boredom. Some of the more exciting elements of the story occurred when the characters were either really bored or feigning boredom. I really got the feel that boredom was in the air when the author brought it into a scene. This is where this story will earn its star.
The titular game of b’tok is described as if it is a war-simulation video game. The last game is even a simulation of the WWII battle of Midway. Championship b’tok is played “with distraction” and so is “more Machiavellian” than normal b’tok. They play the battle of Midway simulation in a cafeteria for the championship effect the other diners provide.
I’m also not too pleased with the use of the word “Machiavellian” to describe the game. Certainly an AI could be Machiavellian, and there are enough game-play-capable AIs in the story, but b’tok is played between two meat-bag players each time it is played in this novelette. Certainly one, or both, of the players could be “Machiavellian”, but the term is not used to describe the players. Certainly a player’s strategy or tactics could be “Machiavellian”, but the game board is described as being equally difficult for both players. Egalitarianism, even some highly challenging form of indifferent egalitarianism, is not well described using the term “Machiavellian”.
Despite the fact that I eviscerate this novelette I can’t help but picture it as part of a larger story that might work. That larger story may even work well. However, this novelette does not work.