Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean’s 1981 Second Game is a stand-alone interstellar espionage novel.
Having discovered to their astonishment that they share the galaxy with another starfaring race, the Ten Thousand World Federation1 attempted to open diplomatic relations with the Veldqans. Rebuffed by the aliens, the Federation dispatched a fleet to underline the benefits of friendly relations. That fleet having been annihilated through mysterious means, Master Spy Leonard Stromberg is dispatched to the alien home world to take a closer look.
Key to his efforts: a board game.
The Veldqans are obsessed with the chess-like Game. Having mastered the local language, Leonard sets himself up in a marketplace, challenging all comers. The twist? Leonard’s sign brags that he always wins the second game. It is no empty boast: Leonard uses the first game to discover his opponent’s weaknesses, then exploits them in the second game.
Eventually Kalin Trobt, senior government functionary, takes an interest. Trobt notices two things about Leonard. First, Leonard is very good at the Game. Second, while he might claim to be a Veldqan, Leonard’s nose cartilage marks him as a rascally human. Leonard is immediately arrested.
The Veldqans are a simple people with simple laws and very little tolerance for deviation. Leonard being clearly a spy, the only honorable thing to do would be to kill him. But first Trobt plans to extract whatever information he can from Leonard, the better to prepare for the coming total war between Veldq and the Ten Thousand Worlds.
It’s not particularly hard for Leonard to escape. This provides Leonard with the opportunity to learn more about the aliens. He has many questions, such as “how did the aliens jump from a nomad lifestyle to interstellar travel without passing the intervening levels of civilization?” and “why do the Veldqans refrain from colonizing other worlds?”
The most important question is “Can anything be done to prevent the impending conquest of the Ten Thousand Worlds by the alien barbarians?” The answer is no. Veldqans will triumph and by triumphing, doom themselves.
Second Game demonstrates classic yellow-spine DAW cover design. I have almost come to terms with DAW’s recent decision to drop that classic look.
I have enjoyed many of MacLean’s SF stories … but I must admit that some of her stories didn’t work for me. This collaboration would be one of the didn’t‑works.
One reason: the biology in this is awful, even for SF. The Veldqans are said to be interfertile with humans. There’s an obvious explanation: the Veldqans are a lost human colony. But that does not appear to be the case. They really are aliens, just aliens who can interbreed with humans. The author gives a lame explanation — that unlikely events do occur — but that didn’t restore any of my SOD (suspension of disbelief).
Another reason: the story is oddly archaic. A glance at the ISFDB entry explains why. The book is an expanded version of a short story originally published in March 1958. A revised and expanded version, Cosmic Checkmate, was published as an Ace Double2 in 1963.
This novel-length version appeared in 1981. Elements of the tale appear old-fashioned because at its heart, this is an Eisenhower-era Astounding story. Hence tropes found in Astounding stories of that era, such as biological and historical determinism taken as scientific fact.
I suspected that the reworking of an older short story is why so much of the novel’s plot seems extraneous. Not much that Leonard does between his escape and later recapture appears to affect the outcome of the plot. I was curious enough to track down a copy of the original magazine publication to compare the short story to the novel. The short version’s beginning and end are the same as they are in novel. The interminable middle section appears to have been inserted to pad this narrative out to novel length3.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t points of interest. There is a sensible explanation as to how the aliens managed to springboard past the usual intermediate technological steps. Also, having the winning solution being to simply concede the game is an unusual choice for the era.
Second Game is out of print.
1: The novel tells us that the Ten Thousand World Federation stretches across seven light-years. I hope that was a typo. The original story does not mention distances.
2: The other half of the double was Robert Moore Williams’ King of the Fourth Planet, about which I know nothing.
3: The 1981 novel is 158 pages long. These days that would count as a novella.