This week, Jake Sisko becomes the first kid in history to get grounded for acing a test. But when the hottest new video game on the promenade starts putting all comers into comas, he may be the only pinball wizard who’s up to the challenge. Why is a Ferengi giving out free plays? Where is the Ultimate Crown of Wisdom? And can video games truly be part of a well-balanced life? All this and more in Arcade, the book where all those games really will rot your brain!
Jake’s intense competition with his friends at a new arcade called the Games Bazaar attracts the notice of the establishment’s Ferengi proprietor, Bokat. Bokat seems content to comp Jake free game after free game, which confuses Jake, given what he knows about the Ferengi. Meanwhile, he crushes an aptitude assessment at school, which confirms his father’s suspicion that he is indeed bright, but just isn’t applying himself. The elder Sisko bans video games until Jake turns in an overdue paper on the Crusades—and does it right.
Bokat tempts Jake with a new game called The Zhodran Crystal Quest, which he claims no one has ever beaten. Jake resists, but remains curious as to what makes it so difficult. The video games become impossible to ignore, however, when his friends start turning up unconscious and injured. Jake connects their comatose state with the new game, and amid a power struggle with Bokat, the Ferengi reveals that the game is actually a map to an artifact called the Da-hahn Crystal, which grants its owner invincibility and immortality. Those who lose the game fall into a coma, and their minds become permanently trapped in it, eventually degrading to nothing, so that no one can walk away and rat Bokat out.
Jake quickly accepts the inevitable conclusion that he’s going to have to be the one to enter the game, win it, and retrieve his friends, since none of the adults have enough skill to make the attempt. As he advances, he learns the “game” is in fact a series of trials intended to test his character. The senior officers attending him learn the same thing from Talarn, a Zhodran high priest who has finally located the game helmet after much searching. The helmet is itself a Zhodran artifact called the Ultimate Crown of Wisdom, and according to Talarn, no one has passed the test in two thousand years. No pressure, Jakey!
That this book is not just as enjoyable as it is but enjoyable at all is no small achievement. When I saw this book was going to be about a video game of some kind, I got pretty worried. At the time Arcade was published, video games were poorly understood by almost anyone who wasn’t playing them several hours a day (and, frankly, by most who were as well). Although countless games were explicitly not made for kids, they had a reputation as children’s fare; you need only to look at the line this book was published under to agree that that bears out. Even today, there is very little fiction about video games that is not dreadfully facile and insipid, or that doesn’t devolve into pathetic wish fulfillment. Also, Diana Gallagher, the author, was nearly 50 years old when it was published—not exactly an age bracket most people associate with bleeding-edge gaming knowledge.
But Arcade succeeds by doing the most important thing that all successful books of its ilk do, which is to not get bogged down in surface-level jargon and details that are unimportant, yet betray a lack of understanding if gotten wrong. When you get down to it, this isn’t really a book about video games; the arcade conceit merely serves as a stepping stone to the heart of the story, viz., the secret test of character. What little video game talk is in the text blends well and is period-appropriate—high scores really did matter in arcades’ heyday, for instance. But in the 90s, the least potentially embarrassing book most people could have written about video games was one that wasn’t really about them at all.1 Gallagher chose a wise path.
Gallagher is a bit of an eclectic lady. Before leaning into writing full-time, she was a folk musician and artist, winning a Hugo for Best Fan Artist in 1988 for a series of hand-colored prints called “Woof: The House Dragon”. Arcade is one of her earliest novels for young readers, but she must have enjoyed herself, because she would go on to be a prolific author of kid lit, cranking out dozens of titles for a wide range of series, including most abundantly Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and The Secret World of Alex Mack. Her Star Trek output is not quite as voluminous, though we will see her a couple more times, notably on the YA installment that ties in with the Day of Honor series. Based on this one, I think I can safely look forward to more.
MVP & LVP
- You can probably easily guess that this week’s MVP is Jake Sisko. After all, that’s just kind of how these books work, being geared toward kid empowerment and whatnot. What kid doesn’t dream of being called on to save their friends with their elite gaming skills? Well, the ones who don’t play video games, I suppose. Also, it briefly seemed unrealistic that Jake would be the only person in two thousand years who was pure enough of heart to win the game, but then I remembered what planet I live on and what country I live in, and I revised my suspension of disbelief accordingly.
- All of the adults are useless to varying degrees, but the one with the absolute least to do here is Kira. She pops in for literally half a page, I think? Honestly though, I feel like she’d actually be better at video games than any senior officer except Bashir (genetically engineered, good at everything), and maybe Dax (Jadzia; cleans up at tongo, down for hardcore challenges), though she would get too competitive and make it no fun.
Nuggets & Stray Bits
- Jake gets a familiar question on the aptitude exam: “How are you feeling?” Unlike the last person we saw get that question, however, Jake answers it effortlessly and cruises right along to the next one. (p. 8)
- Odo turns into a Ferengest to get Bokat to talk—an excellent callback to a similarly high-quality story in the YA line. (p. 44)
Final Assessment: 🙂
Video games can be a minefield for hapless authors to try to set a story in, but Diana Gallagher succeeds by using them as a springboard to a stronger, more universal theme. With so much working against it from the outset, it probably doesn’t have any right to be as good as it is, but it is, and it stands more comfortably among the top half of Star Trek YA efforts to this point than the bottom half.
NEXT TIME: A poop cloud slowly chokes a planet to death in Into the Nebula