William Sleator

Interstellar Pig

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Interstellar Pig Summary

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American author William Sleator’s young adult science fiction book Interstellar Pig (1984) tells the story of sixteen-year-old Barney whose summer vacation is turned upside down when he discovers a mysterious board game known as Interstellar Pig. Among numerous accolades, Interstellar Pig won School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year award.

Sixteen-year-old Barney prefers staying inside and reading science fiction novels to sports or other outdoor activities. Sensitive to the sun, Barney plans to spend as much time as possible indoors at his parents’ vacation rental where the family stays every summer. However, Barney comes out of his shell when an intriguing new family moves into the cottage next door. Barney quickly befriends Zena, Manny, and Joe who introduce him to a science fiction-themed board game called Interstellar Pig.

At the beginning of each match, two to four players each pick an alien race randomly from a stack of cards. Each race is defined by various “Attributes” including strengths, weakness, and something called the Interstellar Relative Sapience Code (IRSC), which measures the race’s intelligence. Paradoxically, the lower the number, the better. Players collect and discard Attribute cards throughout the game by traveling from planet to planet and occasionally fighting one another. When one player defeats another, she or he receives all of her or his opponents’ attributes cards. At the end of sixteen rounds, the player with the Interstellar Pig card in hand is the winner. Meanwhile, the losing players’ home planets are all vaporized.

Despite the seemingly random nature of the initial character selection round, Barney notices the other players’ uncanny ability to pick the same alien race each time. Without fail, Zena always plays as a Zulma, a race of fairy sprites that resemble arachnids. Meanwhile, Manny always draws the card belonging to the Moyna, a race of gas-filled octopus creatures. Finally, Joe always plays as a Jrlb, a race with the power to breathe underwater. Adding to Barney’s suspicion is the fact that the three children are extremely cagey about their origins and personal histories.

Another major mystery comes to light while Barney, creepily rummaging through Zena’s underwear drawer one day, discovers a manuscript penned by Captain Latham. As Barney already knows, the Captain built the house Barney’s family stays in every summer. He is also aware that the Captain’s brother lost his mind and was confined for twenty years in what is now Barney’s bedroom. What the manuscript reveals to Barney is the event that caused the brother’s insanity. While sailing the ocean, the Captain and his crew come across a monstrous-looking creature floating in the ocean. Despite the monster’s leathery green hide, swollen frame, and slimy yellow forehead, most of the crew is content to believe that the creature is a mere human man whose appearance is the result of severe sun damage. Convinced that the creature is of supernatural provenance and possibly the Devil himself, the Captain’s brother murders the creature, viciously strangling him. In retribution, the crew keelhauls the brother, dragging him under the body of the ship. Usually, this punishment is a death sentence. However, the Captain’s brother miraculously survives the ordeal, albeit as a shell of his former self, owing to extreme oxygen deprivation and extensive lacerations. Forcibly confined to what is now Barney’s bedroom, the brother spends the last twenty years of his life scrawling rough markings into the wood lining the room and desperately clutching a trinket recovered from the creature.

Armed with this new information, Barney begins to see a pattern in the strange markings in his bedroom. He concludes that the markings represent a map of a nearby island with a boulder on it. Barney finds the boulder and recovers a small round piece of silver he suspects is the creature’s trinket. On the trinket, there is a disturbing etching of a repellent, one-eyed visage. Almost instinctively, Barney knows it is a representation of the Interstellar Pig. Suddenly, it dawns on Barney that the Interstellar Pig is not only a game, but a real-life conflict that may determine the fate of the galaxy’s races, including his own human race and those belonging to Zena, Manny, and Joe who are aliens in disguise.

After recovering the trinket, the Interstellar Pig, referred to henceforth as “The Piggy,” forges a psychic connection with Barney. Barney learns that the Piggy was exceedingly lonely because of his nagging habit of destroying entire solar systems whenever he hiccups. Therefore, the Piggy created the game so people would better appreciate his company. This doesn’t make sense to Barney, who eventually concludes that the true rules of the game are in reverse: whoever possesses the Piggy will see her or his planet destroyed, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, a carnivorous race of sentient lichen creatures has also arrived on Earth in search of the Piggy. Having learned from his neighbors how to disguise himself as other alien races, Barney assimilates himself into a group of lichen. From them, he learns that no alien has ever seen or heard of the Interstellar Pig game ending. Barney thus concludes that there is no ending to the game and that the Piggy made up the rules so it would never end, and he would never be alone.

Satisfied that it is safe to let go of the Piggy, Barney leaves the trinket where the lichen creatures will find it. The lichen flies off in their spaceship, leading all of the other alien races away from Earth.

Interstellar Pig is a rousing science fiction tale for young adults that employs a brilliant red herring of a narrative device.