written by David Steffen
“Championship B’tok”, written by Edward M. Lerner, published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is nominated for this year’s Hugo Award in the Novelette category. Analog has posted this story for free online as part of this Hugo season.
I generally start these stories with a synopsis, to give a sense of what the story was about. For me to be able to write a meaningful synopsis I need to be able to get some cohesive sense of what the story was about. I had trouble discerning that for this particular story, so this is not so much a synopsis as a list of story elements. The story starts with pilot Lyle Logan playing chess against his ship AI, and then the scene ends very abruptly in a way that’s never adequately explained and these characters never appear again in the story, nor have any other appreciable effect. We’re introduced to an alien race known as Snakes, among other things. There are also a mysterious race of beings (Interveners) that can apparently mimic the appearance of either humans or Snakes–these beings are not at all well-understood but they believe that the beings sparked the explosion of life in the Cambrian Era and that they steered the social/technological development of the human race. The story mostly circles around two characters: a snake named Glithwa and a human named Corinne, and a human Carl. Glithwah represents the ruling Snakes, digging for information about what might be human sabotage. The titular game, b’tok, is played during the story, which is supposedly as much more complicated than chess as chess is more complicated than rock-paper-scissors.
As you might’ve gathered from the scattered, rather long and directionless synopsis, I apparently did not really get the point of this story. What was that first scene there for? What do the Snakes have to do with the Interveners? Who am I supposed to root for? Why do I care about any of this? I found some references on the Internet that this might be part of a series of stories involving the InterstellarNet. If so, maybe I’m just missing some important information, but there was no information attached with the story that suggested it wasn’t a standalone, so I’ve got to judge it on its own merits.
One of the issues with the story was that it claimed that B’tok was so incredibly complicated, but it seemed like a pretty straightforward battle simulator, something we have many variations on even now. Not only that, but some of the reals were just nonsensical, that rather than making it incredibly impressively complicated like it was apparently meant to be, it just came across as a poorly designed war sim. That’s the trouble with trying to write a story about a game that was so complicated humans wouldn’t grasp it well, I guess.
I thought this story was all over the place. I was not interested in any of the characters, or what happened to them, and the point of major reveals was often not particularly clear–the throwaway initial scene certainly did not help any of this.