For years, Rafi Delarua saw his family suffer under his father’s unethical use of psionic power. Now the government has Rafi under close watch but, hating their crude attempts to analyse his brain, he escapes to the planet Punartam, where his abilities are the norm, not the exception. Punartam is also the centre for his favourite sport, wallrunning – and thanks to his best friend, he has found a way to train with the elite.
But Rafi soon realises he’s playing quite a different game, for the galaxy is changing; unrest is spreading and the Zhinuvian cartels are plotting, making the stars a far more dangerous place to aim. There may yet be one solution – involving interstellar travel, galactic power and the love of a beautiful game.
The Galaxy Game is Karen Lord’s follow up to her 2013 science fiction novel The Best Of All Possible Worlds, a xenoanthropological tale in the mode of 1960s Star Trek. The Galaxy Game is like more modern Star Trek such as Deep Space Nine or Voyager, though; less interested in ethical problems and social construction than in its political plotting and intrigues.
This is something of a problem, because the book is still very interested in social discussion; hence, The Galaxy Game spends a lot of time slowly demonstrating and unravelling the dual strands of capital that exist in the world: financial and social credit, which interact and interplay based on a variety of factors largely related to one’s personal networks of friends, family and associates. It’s a fascinating and complex system, which we learn largely alongside Rafi, but which also is never made entirely clear; social credit interacts to change the value of financial credit, and seems to provide for life rather than survival, although again, this is never really straightened out. Lord clearly knows how the system works and its intricacies, and indeed relies on them for her plot without really explaining them, creating a slightly strange situation, with a very interesting mix of the clear and the vague.
That doesn’t extend to most of the rest of Lord’s universe-building; The Galaxy Game has a complex, interesting and well-realised universe that Lord explores various parts of in the novel, largely around the ways psychics work in her universe and the game of Wallrunning, a complex sport whose mechanics are never made quite clear but that seems to perhaps be a kind of roller derby played on variable-gravity walls. It’s an interesting set of concepts that draw the reader in and are explored well throughout the novel, especially in conjunction with the economy and the way these things interact with the credit system. Lord’s worldbuilding is believable and meticulous, including the consequences of things like the uneven distribution of psychic powers and the fear that engenders in others, as well as the different approaches to life of different cultures.
The story of The Galaxy Game, then, is perhaps its weakest point; Lord’s novel ties itself up in knots trying to bring a number of different plots together without revealing the underlying mysteries, until the end when it feels as if the novel is rushing ahead to try to get to the conclusion point Lord wishes to reach. Indeed, much of the novel revolves around a story that is trivial in comparison to the later events, and barely connected to them; it’s actually something that could have worked very well, demonstrating the difference between the scale of personal events versus the galaxy-changing events of the larger plot, but Lord misses this as The Galaxy Game instead moves towards simply having these two scales and failing to connect them, or draw any meaningful discussion out of the links between them. The characters of the novel are largely those peripheral to the central events of the main story, and unfortunately their sudden introduction to its centre doesn’t feel natural, and instead forced; while good and interesting characters, reading their more mundane lives would have been a more satisfying experience had they not been entirely wildly torn from them.
In the end, The Galaxy Game is a less well-written novel than The Best Of All Possible Worlds, but still a very enjoyable sociological exploration of Karen Lord’s universe.
It does, however, have one hugely significant issue, and that is transphobia. One character, Syanrimwenil, is described as impersonating a woman in order to enter the female-only profession of being a “nexus”, a psychic co-ordinator of others. The problem is that both the novel and Ntenman refuse to gender Syanrimwenil as female, repeatedly referring to the character as a man pretending to be a woman; however, Syanrimwenil identifies as something between, not clearly either a cisgender male crossdressing nor a transgender woman. The Galaxy Game therefore feeds, in a very significant way, into a long-standing pattern of depictions of non-cis characters as part of a charade – as enacting a deception on others; while Lord presumably did not intend this, it is the consequence of how Syanrimwenil is presented while being the only character who isn’t cis.