This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Next up on Team Space Leftovers’ SPSFC2 slate is Time to Play, Apocalypse Parenting Book 1, by Erin Ampersand. Another progression fantasy in what is rapidly becoming a pretty familiar sub-genre for me. And I like it!
Time to Play is a classic progression fantasy, with a clever twist. When the Earth is taken hostage and converted into a giant survivor-style reality show for the entertainment of mysterious and horrible aliens, the hapless humans are given skill trees and a points-and-synergies system and basically left to their own devices. In the case of our hero Meghan, this also involves looking after her three kids and an Alabama neighbourhood full of people so selfish and stupid they make the kids look like the fucking Vulcan Science Academy (so, you know, still kind of shitty but at least not actively throwing poo at each other?).
SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT! MAFFIYIR!
Had to be said.
The story had a slightly rocky start, the opening pages seeming a little clumsy and in need of an editorial polish that had me worried for a moment, but it quickly settled into its style and its premise was really excellent – interesting and fun. All in all, it was really enjoyable easy reading. I also appreciated the little neighbourhood map at the front of the book, letting the reader know going on that this was set to be an intimate and self-contained story in a fixed setting and with a controlled number of characters. And it delivered.
We’re immersed in the action and menace of ‘Maffiyir’ right from the start. Human technology is techno-magically cancelled out and the game begins. Meghan has to secure food and water, arms and armour as the alien monsters begin appearing in steady difficulty-progression. As the Maffiyir timer ticks away, Meghan and her family and the rest of humanity are encouraged to fight critters for points, power-up for advantage, and – just maybe – fight their fellow humans for a place on the gross alien leaderboard.
The story immediately and favourably reminded me of a Stephen King disaster, like Cell or The Mist – maybe the people of Meghan’s neighbourhood weren’t quite so grimy and awful, but their selfishness and fear was all too recognisable. A healthy dose of outsider judgementality on the whole parenting thing puts a perfect glaze on a sequence of events that will appeal to people with and without kids. Ampersand has clearly thought about this shit, and has turned “write what you know” into a brilliant, entertaining little story about carrying three ornery-arse independent-minded kids through an alien apocalypse, often kicking and screaming. It’s herding cats, only the cats are gradually granted superpowers as they level up. It’s really very cool.
I enjoyed the glimpses into human nature, as well as the nature of parenthood and responsibility, that we were given throughout this story – all without becoming preachy or smug. While, yes, it is pretty stressful and gut-churning to read while our hero attempts to encourage people not to be selfish pieces of shit the whole entire time, it is also absolutely spot-on. And depressing. But ultimately heart-warming. But also tragic! I don’t know where that leaves me, aside from damn impressed and a little bit giddy.
Gamers, a generation that are increasingly becoming the responsible parent-figures if not the elders of their families and communities, will get a kick out of this story (it’s probably why progression fantasy is such a growing sub-genre). Each demographic and subspecies within gamer culture, and each generation and their values, is nicely represented and portrayed. The mechanics of Maffiyir are brutal and clever, the human savagery and survival instinct the game taps into are all too real, and the cooperation – the true mark of human supremacy, or so I fondly like to dream on my good days – it accidentally forces to flourish in our characters is genuinely uplifting to see.
The aliens themselves, as antagonists and precipitating force behind the entire plot, are kept shadowy – but their technology, from the monsters to the interface to the climactic “mid-game” level-up event, mingle familiarity and alienness really well. The ‘Novelty’ mechanic, and all its implications, really gave me chills as it took shape. While this story was self-contained and very clearly about an extreme close-up of a specific and horrible event, it hints at the existence of a wider cosmos that has massive potential. Plus, of course, it’s not just this little community in Alabama that’s being hit – it’s the entire planet. Just to provide a mid-scale to the narrative too.
Come on now, there are children present! Also there’s an alien apocalypse going on, so keep it in your pants. Still, we do get one (1) sexy time, off page. Frankly there are other things to worry about here and no time for ugly-bumping (unless other helpful parents help out by running interference). Two-and-a-half Benjamins Sisko out of a possible Jim Kirk on the sex-o-meter, and that’s mostly for the hysterically penile tail that immediately became my second-favourite character after Pointy.
Like the sex-o-meter, we have nominal readings here. It’s an alien apocalypse game using killer monsters as its main contestant interface, so there was definitely potential for it to be a lot worse. The inevitable violence was tastefully handled but still grimy and real, giving a true sense of danger while still preserving the “levelled-up tank wading through low-level critters and saying LOL” feel that is such a quintessential part of the grinding-gamer experience. There’s also a bit of random small-animal hunting and prep. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
Again, once you accept the concept of Maffiyir as a narrative device, our WTF levels here are truly minimal. The alien Culture (yeah I capitalised it, this is like the dark side of Banks up in here and we only see a tiny fraction of it) is mysterious and horrible, the teleport function is nicely weird (I was again reminded of some of Stephen King’s more surreal alien tech and settings, like the Tommyknockers and Buick 8 alien aesthetic), but no real WTF. And that’s good. The central premise is bugfuck crazy enough without adding in Dalí and Giger on acid. Time to Play is registering three kiloweirds on the WTF-o-meter, which for reference is enough to charge the Heart of Gold‘s tea maker … like, twice.
My Final Verdict
Damn if this didn’t start out kinda shaky, but got really good. I want to read more, and since Amazon is telling me there is no more (this only came out in June this year), I guess we’re going to be waiting for a while. Some legit apocalypse prep thought exercise and research went into this, and Ampersand is clearly a mum to be reckoned with. Hats off. Heck, I’m going to go ahead and give this one five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Get busy on book 2!