Yahtzee Croshaw, creator of the astoundingly entertaining Zero Punctuation weekly video game review, has released his latest novel! Exactly as irreverent and off-the-hook as Yahtzee’s reviews, Will Save The Galaxy For Food is the epic science-fiction adventure of a hapless former hero trying to make a living just after the Golden Age of space travel has ended.
Picture a scene from a stereotypical pulp sci-fi flick: a shining spaceship on the surface of another planet, a ruggedly handsome hero standing on top of a mountain of recovered pirate treasure, a scantily-clad alien princess staring adoringly at her rescuer. Triumphant music swells…
…now imagine the squawk of the music cutting off. The treasure disappears, the alien princess goes home, the spaceship is about to get repossessed, and we’re left with a horde of out-of-work spaceship pilots wondering what the hell just happened. This is where our story begins.
I swung my feet up onto the control panel and leaned back. The heel of my shoe knocked the self-destruct lever. Not that it mattered; it hadn’t been working since at least last year, when I’d been in a rather dark mood and given it a try.
The invention of Quantunnelling – creating a quantum gate that allows people to simply step from one point in the galaxy to another – has hit space pilots hard. Traveling to another planet used to take weeks or months; now it takes a few seconds. There’s no more need for daring pilots to protect passengers and cargo from space pirates. And nobody’s willing to pay a reward for stopping an alien war or overthrowing a planetary dictator when corporations can just set up a Quantunnel gate and throw money around until everyone stops fighting anyway.
With no useful job skills, space pilots have been reduced to offering sightseeing tours to bored tourists (and occasionally working with pirates on the side to scam a few dollars out of their passengers.) It’s a demeaning job for a former hero, so when the professionally-dressed Ms. Warden offers a pilot a lot of money in exchange for going to a dinner and pretending to be someone else, it sounds almost too good to be true.
And it is. Oh dear god, it most definitely is.
Of course the pilot doesn’t find that out until after he meets his horrifying new boss Mr. Henderson, who makes it very clear his life depends on keeping up the pretense while babysitting Henderson’s teenage son Daniel on his first trip in a custom-built luxury spaceship that practically has a sign saying “Hey Pirates, Come And Get It!”
It’s difficult to go into a lot of detail about the story, partly because the plot revolves around a mystery, but mostly because the action is one dramatic reveal and catastrophic development after another. The pace is relentless, and half the fun is getting caught by surprise every time someone does something out of frigging nowhere (except that it’s been neatly set up several chapters earlier), or you think that things are as bad as they can get, and then suddenly they get worse.
The breakneck pace is kept moving with Yahtzee’s biting dialog and dryly sarcastic tone. The characters snipe back and forth at each other entertainingly, villains deliver brutally clever threats, and I stopped keeping count of all the hilarious metaphors or roundabout ways the author would come up to describe something midway through the first chapter when he started using phrases like “…trying to make me flinch myself to death.”
Yahtzee reveals the details of the impressively complex universe he’s created in small doses between action scenes, meaning we don’t have to wade through pages of exposition all at once. In addition to how much Quantunneling changed everything, there’s the disorder that Earth seems to have fallen into, the mechanism of a Trebuchet Gate, a glimpse of an artificial habitation on a space elevator, and fun historical tidbits like the richly satisfying symbolic middle finger that the first colony on the moon gave to the Earth government that thought it was still in charge. There’s also a full explanation for why keeping an alien as a ship’s mascot can be a really bad idea.
While I wasn’t sure what game I was playing with Daniel, I knew exactly which one I was currently playing with Warden: some hybrid of chess and Russian roulette, and I didn’t have the rule book.
All of the characters have fairly clear (if sometimes a little psychotic) motivations. Most of them are just trying to get by, or trying to make some kind of identity independent from their parents. And then there are characters like Ms. Warden, who’s stuck in such a dangerous situation that you can sympathize with some of the difficult choices she makes. Or you would, if those choices didn’t involve stabbing someone in the back or throwing someone under the bus. Again.
“If you want the adventure and romance, you have to also accept that something might come along and start chewing on your head.”
The novel is at its core a space opera, and definitely played for laughs. But underneath that are some definitely less funny themes. Planet Earth’s environment is trashed, the wealthy make the rules that everyone else has to follow (and they deflect attention by constantly pointing out how unpatriotic everyone else is, het hem). And then there’s the idea that becoming obsolete is bad enough, but pouring everything you have into bringing back the good old days can be much, much worse.
I’m hoping we’ll see more of this world in future books. Actually we darn well better, because I won’t be happy if we’re left to wonder what happened next. And there’s plenty more for Yahtzee to show, not just everything that happened after the Golden Age of space travel ended, but all the ways you can peel back that shiny pulp-magazine cover to see just how rotten everything was underneath all along.