Constellation Games: debut sf novel floored me with its brilliance

I've known that Leonard Richardson was a good writer for half a decade, since he was my student at Viable Paradise.

I just finished Leonard's debut novel, Constellation Games and I'm literally trembling with excitement. Because Constellation Games IS AN AMAZING BOOK.

Here's the plot: Ariel Blum is an Austin-based game-developer with a crappy job making Pony franchise collectible content games for the ten-year-old Brazilian girl market. Then aliens invade the Earth. The Constellation is a coalition of many alien species who have travelled unimaginable distances to invite the Earth to join their loose-knit, non-coercive, freewheeling anarcho-syndicalist collective civilization, which has more than 100 million years' worth of history.

Ariel send the aliens an email. He has a snarky game-review blog where he writes entertainingly about crummy games. Do the aliens have any crappy games they can send him? Turns out they do. From the Constellation space-station (built out of nanocomputers and moon-dust), an alien called Curic drop-ships Ariel a bunch of alien video-games, wrapped in re-entry foam. The aliens are sending stuff like this to a lot of people, and in America, the new Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs (made up of ambitious jerks from the DHS) are scrambling to get it all under control.

Ariel has access to the Constellation Database of Games of a Certain Complexity, which contains user-rankings for every game invented by every alien species in the Constellation, including ones that (ominously) are now extinct. He starts mining it for interesting games to download, play and review.

Thus kicks off one of the smartest, most passionate, most principled science fiction novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Formally, Constellation Games is a just-about-perfect science fiction novel. It's got a great narrator's voice in the form of Ariel, a smartalecky, LiveJournal-trained net.wit who talks like Ready Player One crossed with JPOD. The alien species that Ariel encounters are brilliantly inventive (as are their fossil videogames), each detail more charming than the last. The plot is one of those great caper stories, absurd-with-real-danger, the stuff of books like Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, and it'll rip you right along through the 360 pages like it was a short story, and leave you wanting more.

But there are lots of formally excellent science fiction novels. They deserve our kudos and our attention, but they aren't a patch on Constellation Games. Because this book isn't just entertaining and inventive and clever. It's important.

Constellation Games is one of the best political books I've ever read, an account of the poison chalice of societies based on coercion that puts great works of anarchist fiction to shame. As if that wasn't enough, it's also a fantastic story of love and compassion, which will make you realize that, seen in the right light, we're already living as though it was the first days of a better world. Finally, this is a spectacular novel about art, to rival books like My Name is Asher Lev and The Sun, the Moon and the Stars.

Last week, I thought of Leonard Richardson as a promising talent to watch. Now I fell like he's a nascent master of the field. What a book.

Constellation Games


50 Responses to “Constellation Games: debut sf novel floored me with its brilliance”

  1. So basically, I’m hearing you’re a little wishy washy about it? ;) It’s on the list…

  2. Tom Pappalardo says:

    +1 for emphatic use of the BLINK tag.

  3. berniedekoven says:

    What a great thing to be able to say about your own student. My people call it “shepping nachas”

  4. Roose_Bolton says:

    Damn you, Doctorow, for consistently bringing to my attention those books which I must purchase, thereby depriving me of ever having any pocket change.

  5. signsofrain says:

    Hey, the eBook is cheaper than the physical book! That’s refreshing. 

    • Francis Delaney says:

      Ah, that seems to be true for Kindle owners as well. Nice!

    • Sweet. One of my favorite features of my Nook is the “Get Free Sample” option which lets you download the first N% of a book for free. Once you’re hooked, you fork out the money for the whole thing. My only gripe? The Nook software is not smart enough to auto-place you in the new book at the point where you left off in the sample since I suspect the software treats them as separate books.

      I guess I should’ve tied that back to the review. “Get Free Sample” is a free and instant way to act on Cory’s reviews without having to shell out any money. The book gets added to your e-reader’s queue kind of like Instapaper.

      • Francis Delaney says:

        Now if only they had a lighting system nearly as cool as the Paperwhite.
        Mine is the standard e-ink before the light anyway, which actually works just fine, but as a tech addict sometimes I get the shakes.

  6. rudykin says:

    The review definitely piqued my interest, so it’s on my reading list, but somebody get this guy some design help. That looks like a pretty amateurish book cover…I guess I do actually judge a book by it’s cover…just sayin.

  7. creesto says:

    I love reviews like this! What I am less enamored of is a paperback that was released 10 months ago and it still sells for $20. Wow.

    • Peter says:

      Agreed.  Now, it is the oversized “Trade Paperback” size, rather than the pocket paperbacks that I much, much prefer, so the price is not especially out of the ordinary for that, but… I’ll wait until either it comes out in normal paperback sized, or I find it used.

      I really think that, in this age of digital downloads, a rigid adherence to “waiting until several years after the book comes out to release a small, reasonably-priced paperback” is helping to kill paper books.

      • awillett says:

        Candlemark & Gleam is a very small press. The trade paperback may be the only edition they run.

        • Peter says:

          Fair enough in this case, but it seems to be standard throughout the industry, so the point applies regardless.

          And in this particular case… I’ve never read the author before, so I’ll use the same strategy: I’ll either wait for regular paperback, or I’ll wait until I find it used.  If they don’t come out with a normal-sized paperback, or I never find it used, then they risk potentially losing me as a reader forever. Oh well.

          Maybe he should release it CC… That’s what got me to rush out and buy Blindsight in hardcover, despite never having read the author before and hating the format, I was hooked by the first chapter.

          • Unfortunately, @awillett is probably spot-on: As a teeny-tiny press, we can’t make the economies of scale work to come out with a super-cheap pulp print copy, as much as we’d love to. It’s digital and trade paper, or no paper at all, unless something miraculous happens with the technology and the economics converging.

            That said, we try to make the paperback as attractive as possible; when it’s bought on our website, you get the DRM-free three-format digital bundle with it. We’re still working on the logistics of making that possible with all paperback purchases, or at least those from independent bookshops.

            Leonard has released several companion stories to the novel in CC, and the novel itself has the potential to go to CC in two years, at Leonard’s discretion.

            *Disclaimer: I’m Leonard’s editor at Candlemark & Gleam

          • Peter says:

            While my problems with the format and pricing, as it stands now, still hold sway (for me, any format other than paperback is a detriment that I should be paying less for, not more… while I make an exception for particularly favorite authors I typically won’t simply on a positive recommendation and interesting premise), I do really appreciate the DRM-free attitude. 

            Perhaps, when I finally cave and get either an eReader or a phone that I can comfortably read on, I’ll purchase it in that format (I still far prefer paperback, but at least you ARE offering the digital version for a reasonable price… I just can’t read long-form fiction on my desktop, too many other distractions). 

            Or, hey, if it wins a Hugo/Nebula, maybe I’ll splurge and buy the physical one, since I’m collecting them, too. :)

            Edit: Just after posting this I realized that, if it was out last year, I believe it’s out of the running for Nebula, but I believe the Hugo nominations are still ongoing so… cross fingers for a Hugo?

          • I sympathize immensely, honestly. I choose to read digital vs. paper on a book-by-book basis for various reasons, but I prefer paper in many cases, and I would deeply love to make books available in every single format possible just to help maximize said book’s potential and general reader happiness. The economics of mass-market-sized paperbacks are really sticky if you’re doing anything less than a massive (well, for us, at least) print run, though, and the amount we’d have to charge to pull it off is crazy – it can actually cost more to create a pulp-stock MMP than it does a nice paper quality TPB, if you’re doing anything less than a run of about 10k.

            If we get Leonard a Hugo or a Nebula, though, we will totally find a way to make it happen.

          • Just ordered the digital version from your website. I like to download directly from the publisher when I can – but like so many publishers – you make it hard.  

            We’re spoiled by Amazon’s one click – and I realise that’s a high mark to shoot for – but if you could just make it a *little* easier:- If I’m paying by PayPal – do you really need my phone number, address, T&C agreement etc?  Rather than mailing me a a link to a zip file – how about I pay and then you send me directly to a page where I can download the various epbub/mobi formats directly on my iPad.  A lot of iOS users don’t have a zip unarchiver installed – so that’s an extra burden for the layman who just wants to buy and read your books.  I mean this as constructive feedback – thanks!

          • All really good points, and things that I wish we could address. If our site were scratchbuilt, a lot of this is stuff we could take care of. Because of the eCommerce framework we’re using, though, we’re hemmed in – we can’t turn off the fields selectively for certain purchases (ie, digital, where a phone number and address are silly) or certain payment methods (ditto), and the digital fulfillment insists on sending a link, rather than redirecting to a page. Although THAT I can probably jigger up a workaround for, and which will likely become a new project to integrate smoothly into the checkout flow. Making purchases (and, more importantly, getting and reading books) as simple and effortless as possible is something we’re really committed to doing.

          • Nicholas Laux says:

            You’re in luck – the first two chapters of this book are *also* available online:

            And like you, reading the first two chapters is what caused me to rush out and buy this book as well (about a year or so ago, while it was still undergoing the serialization release), and I was not disappointed!

  8. David Scrimshaw says:

    Are Leonid Korogodski and Leonard Richardson the same person? Or is there a different novella named “Pink Noise” by Richardson?

    • awillett says:

      I think that was Cory briefly conflating two of his former Viable Paradise students. “Pink Noise” is definitely Korogodski. (And now the reference is gone.)

  9. Not being a fan of monopolies, I had to look a bit for this site:
    which gives links to a number of online shops that carry the book in paper and electronic formats, including directly from the publisher.

  10. EDfromRED says:

     Thanks for the recommendation.  I picked it up for my tablet on Amazon for $5.00!

  11. allium says:

    The concept reminds me a little of First Contract by Greg Costikyan. I imagine there would be some interesting contrasts, though, since the latter gets its vibes from the dot-com boom era.

  12. Mike Russell says:

    Just bought from
    For $5 and includes PDF, Epub and Mobi
    The way all books should be!!!

    Also includes some companion stories as well. Awesome… All I gots to say

  13. Duffalo says:

    I got as far as anarcho-syndicalist before I had to add to cart

  14. Rob H says:

    Great suggestion!  Within 2 minutes of reading this (and wishing for a sequel to Ready Player One) I had this delivered to the kindle app on my google Nexus 7!  Only $5 at Amazon!

  15. toobigtofail says:

     Blink *and* ALL CAPS.
    Wot, no exclamation point?

  16. BDiamond says:

    Well, this bummed me out. I started a similar idea years ago (yes, even before Costikyan’s “First Contract”), but let it languish for ‘way too long. Sigh.

  17. Steve Taylor says:

    Ok – you’ve sold me and I’m just about to buy it. The only thing that makes me nervous it that you compared it to _The Sun the Moon and the Stars_ a book which everybody but me likes, and which I loathe to bits. But here’s hoping…

  18. Okaaaayyyyyy–though the premise sounds a little…well, stupid, the ebook is only $5, so I’ll give it a whirl. It certainly sounds like it may be hipdeep in nerd humour and gamer in-jokes, and that prettymuch sells it for me!

  19. Mockiovelli says:

    I know this is a tiny weird nit pick to tagging of the article, but this shows up as a game review rather than a book review.

  20. Steve Taylor says:

    Corey – you forgot to mention the most important thing: Leonard Richardson is the author of RobotFindsKitten! This increases my trust in his writing.

  21. Mark Pitcavage says:

    I have to say that your description of the book makes it sound truly awful. 

  22. I’m about a third of the way into the book and it’s already made me laugh out loud twice and gave me a sudden attack of the feels once. And, to be frank, I don’t even care for video games.

    Richardson is also the author of the BeautifulSoup library for Python, so he’s got that going for him.

  23. Aaron says:

    I just finished the book after purchasing it on the recommendation of this review (and the fact that is was less that  5USD yesterday through Amazon)…and it was absolutely outstanding. There are…layers…that I wasn’t expecting. And some that I was. And together this builds a story of comfort and disquiet. I am pleased.

  24. Well, I try not to read anything that’s broken into the Kindle Top 100,000.  But the sample was pretty addictive.

  25. len says:

    “Hey, Ash, whatcha playin’?” *groan* I demand a refund.

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