Have you ever read a book where you weren’t exactly sure what was going on? Where you could follow the big picture, but all the little details – and there were a heckuva lot of little details – seemed just beyond your grasp? I have, and it drives me crazy; nowadays, I don’t even usually finish books like that.
But it happened to me recently while reading Karen Lord’s new novel The Galaxy Game – and I absolutely loved it.
So what is different about The Galaxy Game than all those other meticulous, complicated books? Pretty simple, really. The author doesn’t go out of her way to explain the world, because her characters are too busy living in it. And since it is such a wonderfully realized world, to be constantly reminded that we are outsiders looking in would have been disingenuous. So, we hold on by our fingertips and enjoy the ride.
It’s hard to even explain the book in other than really broad strokes, but I’ll try. Set far in the future, there are a handful of inhabited planets (both natural and terraformed) of which Terra is one of the oldest in various states of development and alliance. We meet Rafi and Ntenman, two boys attending the Lyceum on Cygnus Beta, a school for the psionically gifted. But undeveloped Rafi – who’s not exactly from a stellar background, although his homestead (extended family) is well known and well connected – is perceived by some to be a potential threat, so he is subjected to controlling techniques that not only are humiliating, but cause him horrendous nightmares.
The only real release Rafi has is Wallrunning – a team game of “speed and agility played on vast vertical surfaces that are riddled with variable gravity fields” (I think of it as a kind of group parkour where the vertical playing field moves and flows). Diminutive Rafi isn’t all the good at it, but on the Wall he feels free. Beefier Ntenman, from an established merchant Ntshune family, isn’t all the good at it, either, but he’s much more outgoing and confident than Rafi, and can afford better equipment, so his participation on the team is welcome.
Eventually, however, Rafi cannot take the stigma he lives under at the Lyceum – or the tensions he has to navigate at home – and, aided by some sympathetic relatives (who point him in the right direction then look the other way), he leaves his homestead and his estranged mother, and clandestinely flees to Punartam where he can have himself declared an adult and try to make a life for himself. Ntenman, also bored at the Lyceum, follows Rafi (Ntenman is not big on rules, which with his gregarious and somewhat roguish nature, often does him well), where both young men’s futures turn in ways neither of them could ever have imagined.
Full disclosure: that synopsis is a cop out. There’s so much more going on than what I’ve outlined, so many secondary characters that may not have as much page-time but are nevertheless integral to what is occurring, and what is occurring is a swirling stew of political and socioeconomic happenings that incorporate amazements such as mindships (sentient creatures, handled by a rare breed of especially gifted – and fiercely independent – human pilots, which provide interstellar transportation by, in effect, biting passengers and injecting them with a kind of coma-inducing toxin), and strict societal norms that govern everything from honorifics to “kinship contracts” (of which marriage is only a tiny, almost insignificant part) to what one wears, where one goes and even what pins or ribbons should or should not be added to lapels or belts. This is a world where not only the physical and the emotional aspects of life need to be taken into account, but also the telepathic and the empathetic aspects, with all their rules and dictums and civilities…. like I said, it’s complicated.
And it’s wonderful.
But to dig a little bit further: why is such a complex and elaborate narrative so good? Because it all fits. It works. Even without understanding every bit of it, it feels coherently whole without having to manufacture bits to explain other parts, or work really hard to attempt to have it make sense. It may not be intuitive, but it makes sense.
And whereas other authors would spend an extraordinary amount of time building explication into their story, Karen Lord doesn’t spend time explaining much to us. If a character is learning something, we learn something along with them, but if it’s something they intrinsically understand, then we are meant to simply learn off their cues. (Such as when Ntenman makes fun of Rafi when he unknowingly commits what feels like a country bumpkin faux pas in highly structured Punartam society – we learn along with Rafi just why what he’s done is considered embarrassingly naive; without Ntenman’s reaction, we would have no indication the depth of the social relationships that exist.)
So we get the sense that we have actually entered this world in which we are strangers. It’s not a tale being crafted for our sensibilities, it’s a world – or worlds – into which we have slipped, and we have to learn from observation, not explanation. Sometimes it’s bewildering, yes, and often we have to hold situations and reactions – even on the part of the main characters – in abeyance before we can make sense of them. But with the thoroughness of Ms. Lord’s imaginings, it’s an exhilarating experience.
It wasn’t until after I had read the book that I came to realize it actually had a kind of precursor novel in Karen Lord’s 2014 work, The Best of All Possible Worlds. While The Galaxy Game is not a sequel to this earlier book, it apparently does have some of the same characters and employs the same universe. According to some reviewers, reading The Best of All Possible Worlds makes The Galaxy Game more… understandable.
Doesn’t matter. To push a metaphor, reading The Galaxy Game is a journey worth taking, even if you can’t read the roadmap that tells you where you’re going. Just sit back and enjoy the scenery, and eventually not having a destination won’t matter anymore. It’s all good.
And with The Galaxy Game, it is indeed all good.