Only You Can Save Mankind

only you can save mankindI was excited when my son brought home a Terry Pratchett book on his own, and he really did give it a good shot (a rarity for my son who tends to make a decision about a book before he’s done with the first page), but it turns out Only You Can Save Mankind is both a bit dated and a bit old for most nine year olds.

Johnny Maxwell, our hero, is twelve years old, which is probably also a good guideline for the right age to appreciate the book. While playing a video game about killing aliens to “Save Mankind,” a message comes up on his screen that reads “We wish to talk.” It turns out that the aliens in the game are real (or at least when they die they stay dead, unlike the player) and they’ve pretty much had it with being shot at all the time. Now Johnny has to decide what he’s going to do, eventually with the help of Kirsty who goes by “Sigourney” thanks to her love of the Alien movies.

The plot isn’t always easy to follow—you need to just hang in there and trust that it will make enough sense in the end—but in my experience this is pretty typical of Pratchett. And while I was left with questions, they weren’t big enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. The unanswerability of those questions is probably part of the point. The book is amusing, but often on a level that I think my kids wouldn’t pick up on. It made me smirk a few times, though.

There are deep themes throughout the book—what is reality, what is death, who are we really, how do we know, what are our responsibilities to others—but I wonder how many kids would pull them out without guidance.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

It’s definitely dated, perhaps to the point where modern kids won’t actually understand it. It’s also very British, which makes some terminology and references harder to follow for American kids.


The book is very much a product of the first Gulf War—the first war we got to watch as it happened, almost like a video game. Looking back on my memories of that and my horror of what all that might mean for us as a society, this book resonated with me. However, my kids don’t really have that context. Although our drone attacks are still essentially controlled by someone looking at a screen and steering with a joystick, with the advent of embedded journalists our TV wars are now more reality show than video game. However, many of the themes in Only You Can Save Mankind still ring true, even if the details are different. Overall, the book definitely comes off as at least disturbed by the war, if not explicitly anti-war.


Death is theme running throughout, but mostly on a philosophical level. It’s easy to kill something when it all seems like a game, which makes the connections to the televised war that much more striking. Is life a game? Are games real? Are dreams real? If we die in a game or in a dream, can we die in reality as well? It gets pretty existential.


There’s old school video game violence—the catch is that it actually causes harm to alien races. Dealing with that is part of the point of the book. There’s also a scene in which talking to Johnny saves his friend from being in a tragic car accident. It’s mostly dealt with off-screen, but the friend goes into shock because of what he sees at the accident. Also, in the end, Johnny kills one of the aliens with a gun. It’s arguably necessary violence, but the fact that Johnny does it is viewed as growth, as is the fact that Sigourney—who has been itching to shoot something for several chapters—in the end hesitates to shoot a living thing, even if it’s an evil alien.


Sexism is dealt with explicitly, but it also feels dated. The 12 year old boys all know that girls are inferior. When Johnny tries to define “sexist” for the alien captain (who’s female and speaks in italics), we get this exchange:

“There’s lots of stuff most girls can’t do, but you’ve got to pretend they can, so that more of them will. That’s all of it, really.”

“Presumably there’s, uh, stuff boys can’t do?”

“Oh, yeah. But that’s just girls’ stuff,” said Johnny. “Anyway, some girls go and become engineers and things, so they can do proper stuff if they want.”

It turns out that the alien race faces the same thing, but in reverse. The females are the warriors, having evolved to protect their breeding pond. There’s one male on the ship, and he turns out to be the villain in the end. I’m not sure what the message of that one is. However, having earlier established that girls can’t play video games, at that moment another player shows up on the screen who’s the best player Johnny has ever seen. Later we learn that she’s a girl and she teams up with him to help Save Mankind. She does break a lot of female stereotypes and Johnny breaks a lot of male stereotypes. But it’s all handled in a way that feels heavy handed now.


Johnny’s parents are going through what he calls “Trying Times”—it’s fairly obvious that they’re splitting up, although this is mostly background. Johnny is somewhat neglected except for those times when his parents remember they’re parents and smother him for a bit. He very much seems to be in denial about the situation—something that his friends call him on, but it isn’t actually dealt with in the book.

Social Issues

There’s a lot of labeling and name-calling, although the kids getting called names mostly take it in stride. They all seem to be seeking categories to put each other into, but since they’re all doing it, they just accept it as part of the social game. Johnny reflects on this, but doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. The possibility of mental illness is dealt with rather flippantly, although it seems in keeping with the age group.


This might work for kids 12 and a bit older, mostly because the themes require some reflection and deep thinking. It would be especially good for kids who appreciate the early days of video games and have a sense of history (it’s a little weird to think of my young adult years as “history”!). It’s possible this would work really well for a discussion group with an adult who remembers the first Gulf War and can add the necessary context. Many of the themes are still applicable today, even if the specifics are a bit dated in the book. It’s an interesting and quick read for adults looking for an easy yet thought-provoking book.


Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett
First in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy
Originally published in 1992
Version: I read the slightly revised 2004 edition my son brought home from the school library

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