May 17, 2007


The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy: Only You Can Save Mankind; Johnny and the Dead; Johnny and the Bomb. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTrophy. $5.99 each (Save; Dead). HarperCollins. $16.99 (Bomb).

      Terry Pratchett has a wonderfully convoluted mind. In The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, he puts it at the service of stories for readers ages eight and up – in particular, readers willing to see the world as not quite what it looks like, the people as not exactly what they seem to be, and their everyday lives as very far from ordinary indeed.

      These are books of the 1990s, but their fast pace, wry humor and offbeat story lines serve them very well in the 2000s. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and Johnny and the Dead (1993) are now available as paperbacks, with Johnny and the Bomb (1996) out in a new hardcover edition. You don’t have to read all the books, but if you start with one, you’ll want to. And if you don’t start at the beginning, you’ll wish you had.

      Only You Can Save Mankind takes place largely in a video game. Yes, in it. Johnny Maxwell, a rather ordinary 12-year-old who sees a bit too much simply because he doesn’t wear the real-world blinders of everyone around him, finds himself one day playing a (now old-fashioned) video game of the shoot-the-space-invaders variety, during which the leader of the invaders suddenly asks to surrender instead of being shot…which of course is impossible. Johnny has several friends to whom he turns when impossible things happen, and they are pretty much no use at all, as evidenced by their nicknames: Yo-less, who is black but “had been born with a defective cool”; Bigmac, a skinhead and math expert who gets the answers right but has no idea how, and doesn’t much care, and who has a tendency to drive too fast in other people’s cars; and Wobbler, who “wanted to be a nerd but they wouldn’t let him join,” who messes around with computers and usually messes them up as well. Through a series of events that range from impossible to merely extremely improbable, Johnny finds himself making common cause with the alien leader, which results in all copies of the game going bad as Johnny ties to help the aliens escape alive from nowhere to somewhere else. And then a ship appears in gamespace that doesn’t merely try to blast its way through but hovers thoughtfully around, and turns out to be piloted by a 13-year-old girl named Kirsty who likes to be called Sigourney and who knows everything and has the awards to prove it. And when Johnny and Kirsty make common cause and start interfering with (or complementing) each other’s dreams, if they are dreams, then things get even weirder…

      And if all that isn’t strange enough, there’s Johnny and the Dead, which does not include Kirsty but which again has Johnny sort of open to things that other people just don’t perceive, which in this case means dead people. Not ghosts (turns out the dead don’t like the word). Just people who used to be alive and are now dead, but are still, you know, people, and are unhappy that their old small-town cemetery is about to be destroyed so a megacorporation can build an office building there. These are not ravening fiends, though – Johnny teaches them to dance (Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, specifically), and they teach themselves how to use the telephone and call talk-radio shows, and there are some marvelous scenes in which it turns out that even nonliving things can have ghosts, or ethereal afterlife existence, or something like that. And Pratchett, as is his way, slips in a surprising message or two along the way, such as the realization that cemeteries are not for the dead but the living…

      Speaking of which, Johnny and the Bomb sort of mixes them up. The dead and the living, that is. Everyone is a year older here – Johnny is 13. Kirsty is back this time, calling herself Kasandra, and the rest of the dead-end gang is along for the ride, too, and this ride turns out to be back and forth in time, thanks to a very strange shopping cart pushed along by a bag lady named Mrs. Tachyon, whose name would be a hint if any of the characters in the book chose to take it. There are also some jars of gherkins, a cat with a bent spine and nasty disposition, and a few other oddments here and there. And there’s a genuine puzzle for Johnny, as in the other books: here he finds himself going back to the day during World War II in which Nazi bombers missed their target and instead destroyed an entire street in Johnny’s town, killing 19 people. Can he stop the killings? Should he stop them? All the usual time-travel paradoxes are trotted out here with Pratchett’s typical aplomb and fine sense of who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks. Yup, Johnny and Kirsty/Kasandra meet themselves, or almost, and they travel with the other boys, except when they lose one, and Mrs. Tachyon keeps bouncing back and forth in time as well, and the whole book becomes a set of ethical/moral puzzles presented in terms of an absolutely marvelous adventure. In fact, that’s a description of the whole trilogy. If you have not yet made Johnny Maxwell’s acquaintance, what are you waiting for? Transportation back to the 1990s?

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