I had a copy of Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett on my shelf a long time and kept putting off reading it. I didn’t have a good reason for avoiding it except that the cover says “Terry Pratchett” but has a space ship rather than an ogre or a wizard or Death on it. Now I can safely say this book is a perfect reason why authors shouldn’t be pigeon-holed. Pratchett doesn’t just write satirical fantasy for adults featuring bumbling wizards and trolls whose knuckles make bink-bink noises. He also writes children’s books about video games and aliens, and he pulls it off splendidly.
Set in England during the Gulf War of the early ‘90s, when video games still looked more like games than real life, Johnny Maxwell has a lot on his plate. His parents might be splitting up, there’s a war on, and most importantly he’s trying to beat a game called “Only You Can Save Mankind.” But when he’s about to blast the alien spaceship, the aliens surrender to him. And when Johnny falls asleep at night, he wakes up in the game. When he dies in the game, he just comes back again. But the dreams make him wonder, what happens when the aliens die in the game? This book is only part one of the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.
The story caught my attention immediately; it reminded me of "The Last Starfighter" in a good way. Johnny’s playing the sort of game I remember from when I was a kid. I’d play for hours on end and I can’t count the times I continued playing even in my dreams. Johnny makes a compelling and likable hero, despite his nerdiness. As a trademark, Pratchett packs a punch even with the secondary characters. This book is no exception and David’s friends add surprising depth and realism to the story. I think I remember these kids from middle school.
I read the entire novel in one sitting and wished I had the remaining two books of the trilogy. I also had an itch to dig out my Commodore 64 and play some old-school video games. (And I kinda wish “Only You Can Save Mankind” was a real game.) This novel reminded me how great Pratchett is at creating distinct and vivid characters in a very efficient way. He isn’t just fantastically funny; he also tells really well-crafted stories that poke at your emotions and vices in just the right way. No matter your age, if you like humor, video games, aliens, or geeky characters, you’ll love Only You Can Save Mankind.