Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: 'Second Game' by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean

4 / 5 Stars

‘Second Game’ has a rather complex history. It was first published in Astounding in March 1958 as a short story of the same title. Then an expanded version was released in 1962 as ‘Cosmic Checkmate’, part of Ace Double F-149.
The novel was expanded again for this May, 1981 DAW Books publication (No. 435, 158 pp., cover art by Michael Mariano).

De Vet wrote a sequel, ‘Third Game’, which appeared as a novelette in the February 1991 issue of Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact.
The novel opens with the phrase: I’ll beat you the second game.

Drafted into duty as a Federation spy, Terran Leonard Stromberg undergoes plastic surgery, and travels to the planet Veldq, where he passes as a member of the humanoid race living on that world.
Stromberg’s mission is to discover why the Veldqans refuse contact with the Federation – and why the Veldqans destroyed an entire Federation diplomatic fleet that sought to ignore that proscription. The ease with which the Veldqans destroyed the fleet is disturbing to the Federation, which expected little opposition against its haughty imposition on Veldq.

A master chess player, Stromberg has studied the Veldqan counterpart to chess, a game called (simply) the Game. As part of his disguise on Veldq, Stromberg assumes a persona as a skilled player of the Game, part of his strategy to learn as much as he can about Veldqan culture and military capabilities, withour arousing suspicion.
Stromberg sets up his board at a Veldqan fair and issues a challenge to any and all players: he’ll beat them the second game.

I won’t disclose any spoilers, save to reveal that as Stromberg’s quest progresses, he becomes increasingly vulnerable to discovery and arrest by the Veldqans. But if Stromberg is to save the Federation from defeat, he’ll need to risk life and limb, because the Veldqans are marshaling for an invasion of the Federation….an invasion they will surely win.
Unless Leonard Stromberg can find a way to win the Second Game……

I first read the 1962 novelette version of ‘Second Game’, and in my opinion, it’s the best version.
This DAW expansion, while engaging, shows too many signs of padding, and the crisp, concise character of the original narrative is lost on the wayside.
Sections dealing with an inter-racial Love Jones (featuring an insatiable alien BBW - ! ), in particular, comes across as contrived - even cheesy.
However, those readers for whom this DAW volume is their first exposure to ‘Second Game’, may find less fault with this expanded text than I did.

Either way, novelette or DAW novel, ‘Second Game’ continues to be one of the best sf pieces from the late 50s / early 60s. There is little in the way of traditional action; no blasters are fired at our hero, and any space battles that take place are something of a sideline among the overall narrative.
However, ‘Second Game’ succeeds in making the chess matches of the Game, and the parallel political maneuverings between Stromberg and the Veldqans, interesting all the way till the final sentence.

SF fans will want this volume in their collections.

No comments: