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Literature / Johnny Maxwell Trilogy

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"Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit."
Johnny and the Dead

To look at him, you'd think that Johnny Maxwell is just an ordinary twelve-year-old. But weird stuff keeps happening to him. Of course, you could blame these Trying Times — his parents are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce — but really, the kinds of things we're talking about aren't part of a normal kid's routine. I mean, what would you do if...

...the aliens in your favorite video game surrendered instead of shooting back? At first, Johnny and his friends think it's part of the programming. But this scenario isn't in the manual. Then Johnny starts having incredibly lifelike dreams — where he's at the controls of a starfighter, and the alien fleet, hanging in space before him, is waiting for him to lead them safely home. As hard as it was trying to save Mankind from the Galactic Hordes, it's even harder trying to save the Galactic Hordes from Mankind. But hey, it's only a game, isn't it?


...Or if you started seeing the dead — just as their cemetery was about to be demolished? Not many people can see the dead (not many would want to). But Johnny can, and he's got bad news for them: the town council wants to sell the cemetery and put up an office complex. But the dead have learned a thing or two from Johnny, and they're not going to take it lying down, especially since tomorrow is Halloween...

...And what if your local bag lady turned out to be a time traveler? Johnny and his friends discover Mrs. Tachyon semi-conscious in an alley. It seems there's more to Mrs. Tachyon than a squeaky wire cart and a bunch of mysterious black bags. Somehow this wizened little woman holds the key to different times and different eras-including the Blitz of 1941. Suddenly now isn't the safe place Johnny thought it was as he finds himself bound up more and more with then...


The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy is a series of three books comprising Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb, written by Terry Pratchett. It concerns the adventures of Johnny Maxwell and his friends, Wobbler, Bigmac, Yo-less, and Kirsty, as they deal with whatever weird thing the Universe throws at them this week. Only You Can Save Mankind has been adapted for radio, the other two for TV (The Dead for ITV in 1995 and The Bomb for The BBC in 2006). There's also been a stage musical of Only You Can Save Mankind, with accompanying soundtrack CD.

Johnny Maxwell Trilogy contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The Ace: Kirsty is a deconstruction; despite being good at anything she turns her hand to, her arrogance and aloofness kept her friendless until she met Johnny.
  • Ace Pilot: Kirsty in the video game world in Only You Can Save Mankind.
  • Action Girl: Kirsty.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Johnny and the Captain in Only You Can Save Mankind. Lampshaded that it only exists because Johnny expects it to and the video game world is a consensus reality. Subversion, the Captain complains about it being hard to navigate.
  • Almost Famous Name: A running joke in Johnny and the Dead in regard to the local cemetery. For instance, Einstein is buried there — not Albert Einstein the physicist, but Solomon Einstein the taxidermist.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Kirsty has some strong autism traits.
  • And You Were There: Johnny's imagination calls up imaginary versions of his friends to pilot the cargo ships delivering food to the ScreeWee, putting them in the unenviable position of being NPCs in an Escort Mission.
  • Artificial Stupidity: Lampshaded. Johnny points out that the ScreeWee vastly outnumber and outgun the human player in all the programmed missions but the whole point of a video game is the enemies are stupid and incompetent, lining up one by one to be killed. When the Gunnery Chief declares his intention to fight the war against the humans for real, every mission suddenly becomes a Curb-Stomp Battle.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: Yo-less and his "fridge molecules". (Fridge Molecule Logic?)
  • Author Appeal: Terry Pratchett was a huge fan of the Elite, X-Wing and Wing Commander franchises in real life, and based the fictional Only You Can Save Mankind's marketing and gameplay heavily on his experiences.
  • Badass Bookworm: Kirsty isn't just brainy — she also knows karate.
  • Bedsheet Ghost: One of the gang dresses as one for Halloween. In a pink bedsheet with flowers on it.
    Wobbler: What are you, a gay ghost?
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Placid, unassuming Johnny is capable of getting angry if sufficiently pressured.
  • Berserk Button: Try and call Kirsty "little lady". See what happens.
  • Canon Welding: The shop from Truckers has been relocated to Blackbury. It might well be a different branch of Arnold Bros, as in their heyday big department stores had multiple branches in nearby towns and cities. The local newspaper makes a big point of serving both Grimethorpe and Blackbury, suggesting these are neighbouirng towns.
  • Catchphrase: Mrs Tachyon has "that's what you think," uttered at random times that seem to have nothing to do with the conversation she's having. Johnny eventually realises that she's speaking to the universe itself. You can't go back in time? That's what you think...
  • Changed My Jumper: Perhaps it would have been a better idea to keep it on.
  • The Chosen One: Johnny. Pretty much by the process of elimination.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Kirsty is not even referenced in the second book.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: Parodied. While Johnny is watching a boring newscast on TV, he has a brief moment of reality distortion causing the commentator to segue into discussing the ScreeWee surrender.
    • Hero with Bad Publicity: In this very brief glimpse of Earth in the video game world, the humans seem highly suspicious of both the ScreeWee and Johnny.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Blackbury's cemetery is about to be sold for fivepence. Johnny walks into the town council meeting and offers a counterbid of one pound.
  • Commonality Connection: Kirsty thinks she has this with the alien captain who is female; Johnny, trying to recruit her support, does not mention that she's wrong about sexism being the captain's problem because it's a matriarchial species.
  • Condensation Clue: Wobbler writes down the license plate number of some thugs' van by huffing on a car window and using his fingertip, then keeps huffing on it so it'll remain visible.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Kirsty.
  • Conversational Troping: If TV Tropes existed in the Johnnyverse, all five of the main characters would be regulars.
  • Cool Loser: Subverted, as Johnny notes that his friends should be this but fail at it — Wobbler the computer geek is terrible with computers, Big Mac the skinhead is wimpy and has asthma, and Yo-Less is the world's most strait-laced and rhythm-free black kid (this was before Black and Nerdy was a thing).
  • Copy Protection: Only You Can Save Mankind, the in-story game, has it. There's a detailed description of how utterly ineffective it is.
  • Crazy-Prepared: For a while Johnny kept a bucket of water in his room in case he spontaneously combusted.
  • Cultural Rebel: Yo-Less
  • Death Is a Slap on the Wrist: Johnny appears to be able to resurrect in a new ship an infinite number of times, since for him it's only a game. Averted for the ScreeWee, who die for good if killed. This creates a dilemma where Johnny only gets a break from his constant vigil if he dies — and this is the only way to replenish his limited stock of missile ammo — but during that time the ScreeWee fleet is totally vulnerable.
    • Also played with in a Yank the Dog's Chain moment where Johnny gets knocked out, expecting to wake up in his own bed, only to regain consciousness, still slowly bleeding to death, fully expecting to die for real — and only then waking up in his own bed.
  • Defensive Failure: That's what the Gunnery officer thought would happen.
  • Defictionalization: Only You Can Save Mankind describes Wobbler creating an almost Unwinnable Joke Game, Journey to Alpha Centauri, which does nothing but display a blank screen for 3,000 years (about the amount of time it would realistically take to travel to Alpha Centauri in any plausible Real Life spacecraft) and then display a tiny white dot and a text message, "Welcome to Alpha Centauri. Now go home." Julian Fleetwood took the initiative to program an Interactive Fiction version of this game in 1998, which is playable online.
  • Determinator: Kirsty, because anyone calling her plucky would live to regret it.
  • Due to the Dead: Discussed in Johnny and the Dead.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Mrs. Tachyon is briefly mentioned in Johnny and the Dead before she and her time travel abilities become a major part of the plot of Johnny and the Bomb. Apparently she was the only resident of the town to regularly frequent the cemetery (in hindsight, most likely because she knew everyone buried there when they were alive).
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In the first book, Wobbler is a legitimate computer wiz, and Big Mac is, if not a real badass, then at least capable of convincingly pretending to be one.
  • Easy Evangelism: Averted. Here is Johnny trying to teach Kirsty about nonviolent approaches:
    Kirsty: Do you know, there was an African tribe once whose nearest word for 'enemy' was 'a friend we haven't met yet'?
    Johnny: Right. That's how...
    Kirsty: But they were all killed and eaten in eighteen hundred and two. Except for those who were sold as slaves. The last one died in Mississippi in eighteen sixty-four, and he was very upset.
  • Escort Mission: The Only You Can Save Mankind game becomes one of these — under the terms of the ScreeWee surrender they are now barred from firing back against attacks from human ships, meaning Johnny is solely responsible for protecting them.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Kirsty doesn't like her name. Or any of the other names she comes up with after a week or so.
  • Expospeak Gag: The Captain's food order, which includes such delights as "pressed wheat extractions treated with sucrose". Breakfast cereal.
  • Expy:
    • Part of the premise of Johnny and the Dead is the local dead people are all Expys for other, more famous people who resemble them in appearance or name (e.g. Solomon Einstein for Albert Einstein).
    • The overall concept of the afterlife in the graveyard in Johnny and the Dead is borrowed from Our Town, and the one dead man who actually is a "ghost" and unwilling to move on to the afterlife — because, it turns out, he died by suicide — is an expy of Simon Stimson.
    • Cobbers, a vastly popular Australian soap opera, parallels Home and Away and Neighbours.
  • Extraverted Nerd: Yo-less.
  • Fictional Geneva Conventions: A lot of humor is derived from the Real Life Geneva Conventions being applied to the ScreeWee surrender. For instance, the law that enemy POWs must be given the same rations as one's own troops means the ScreeWee get a shipment of stereotypical gamer junk food (which they find borderline inhumane).
  • Fiery Redhead: Kirsty. May overlap with Heroes Want Redheads, depending on your interpretation of their relationship.
  • A Friend in Need: In Only You Can Save Mankind, when Johnny realizes Bigmac has seen his friends crash the car they stole, he is running after him before he even thinks; he stops Bigmac from getting too close.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Johnny is a bit of a soft touch, and his compassion for those in need is what drives the plot of all three books. Only You Can Save Mankind even mentions he rescues spiders that fall into the bathtub, which makes him bristle at the Captain characterizing him as a ruthless killer because of his actions in what he thought was only a game. This makes Johnny all the more disturbed when his desperation not to let anyone get hurt during the game drives him into an Unstoppable Rage, validating the Captain's Humans Are Warriors/Humans Are Bastards view of him.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Johnny's role in Johnny and the Dead, when he shows up at the meeting to finalize the sale of the cemetery. Everything Johnny says, naive and clumsy as it is, only serves to make the adult onlookers realize how grasping and cynical the corporation's actions have been and how shameful their own complacency has been. (It starts with pointing out that the corporation rep insisting all questions be held for after the long, boring presentation is just a way of running out the clock and discouraging any citizens from actually participating in the meeting.)
    • Happens also in Only You Can Save Mankind, when his teacher leads a class discussion on the merits of The Gulf War that breaks down into the predictable patriotism vs. pacifism sides, only for mediocre, quiet student Johnny to suddenly burst out in a surprisingly eloquent speech based on his dreams about the game, ranting about how War Is Hell and makes easy moral judgments impossible.
  • Free Prize at the Bottom: A Running Gag in Only You Can Save Mankind is characters finding plastic alien action figures in their cereal. One of them is noted to look a bit like a ScreeWee.
  • Fruit Cart: Lampshaded in Only You Can Save Mankind. Johnny wonders if it's actually the same marketplace each time and what the stallholders must think.
  • Fur and Loathing: Subverted. Kirsty was noted for calling on old ladies for wearing fur, but she puts on a fur coat as a disguise going back in time.
  • The Game Come to Life: The plot of Only You Can Save Mankind.
  • Game Over: Johnny finds out in the end of Only You Can Save Mankind is a giant "GAME OVER" screen. For him, it marks the end of his adventure; for the ScreeWee, it's a portal that lets them escape this universe for one where they can chart a new destiny.
  • Genre Savvy: Continual references to movies make it clear the kids have some idea of what to expect.
  • Get Back to the Future: Wobbler gets stranded in the forties by a Grandfather Paradox which the rest of the kids then have to repair.
  • Ghost Amnesia: The living need to remember. The dead need to forget.
  • Good with Numbers: Bigmac has a natural ability at mathematics, which distresses him because "he tries really hard to be a big thicko".
  • Grandfather Paradox: While visiting 1941, Wobbler inadvertently prevents his grandfather and grandmother getting together. He doesn't cease to exist outright, but finds that he's stuck in 1941, unable to return to the 1990s, until he fixes it.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: Happens to the ghost of the communist William Stickers in Johnny and the Dead.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: After giving it some thought, they decide not to kill Hitler after all.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: Mrs. Tachyon and Guilty
  • Hypocritical Humor: After Johnny successfully saves Wobbler's grandfather from dying in the bombing of Blackbury as a child, Wobbler then tries to prevent his grandfather's future death by motorcycle by warning him never to buy or ride one, which the child scornfully rejects. Wobbler loses his temper and declares the kid deserves to die in the future for being so rude to someone who was just trying to help. He then glances at the detailed list of life advice his older self from the alternate timeline left for him, crumples it up and tosses it.
  • I Have Many Names: Kirsty can't seem to make up her mind on what names she likes.
  • I'm Mr. [Future Pop Culture Reference]: Yo-less' friends explain his presence to the Forties people in Johnny and the Bomb as him being a foreign prince — "Prince Sega, all the way from Nintendo".
  • Implacable Man: the Screewee Empire are genuinely fearful of the protagonist's ability to keep coming back every time they kill him.
  • Informed Attribute: As Johnny points out when he first meets the ScreeWee, the box copy of their game says they're a race of genocidal conquerors who have already destroyed several human planets, and therefore the humans killing them is justified self-defense. The ScreeWee dismiss all of this as in-universe propaganda. The written backstory of the game doesn't seem to become real the way the ScreeWee themselves do under the influence of Johnny's imagination — possibly a Take That! toward the paper-thin Excuse Plots of games like this that have no relevance to the actual game experience.
  • Insistent Terminology: The dead people in Johnny and the Dead are very insistent that Johnny not refer to them by the term "ghosts", because "a ghost is something different... something very sad." It eventually transpires that the one dead person who committed suicide is, in fact, a ghost — which seems to mean he is unable or unwilling to move on to the afterlife when the others do.
  • In Spite of a Nail: In Johnny and the Bomb, the protagonists overcome their worries about For Want of a Nail and save a couple dozen people from getting bombed. As a result a couple streets have different names and a few shops have changed, but that's about it.
  • Insufferable Genius: Kirsty is smart, but shows no respect for other people.
  • Inventor of the Mundane: Wobbler is left in the past, unable to return to his time due to a paradox. While taking The Slow Path, he uses his knowledge of the present to "invent" fast food restaurants and become wealthy.
  • Ironic Echo: Kirsty rather thoughtlessly blows off Yo-Less' aggravation when he's a victim of 40's-era institutionalized racism, telling him that "you people" should stop taking it so seriously. When she's later a victim of equally institutionalized 40's-era sexism, Yo-Less glibly tell her the exact same thing back.
  • It's for a Book: The universal "out" for getting grownups to let you do things: "I'm doing a project on it."
  • I Wish It Were Real: Nobody made any wishes, but the aliens still gained some semblance of reality.
  • Jive Turkey: Yo-less gets his nickname because he isn't one, and never says "yo".
  • Let's Meet the Meat: A variation is discussed, Yo-less doesn't trust ice cream that wants you to eat other ice cream.
  • Malaproper: Often comes from Johnny's supporting cast.
  • Meaningful Name: Mrs. Tachyon. Tachyons are theoretical particles that move faster than the speed of light, which means they're also moving backwards in time.
  • Medium Awareness: A big part of Only You Can Save Mankind.
  • The Men in Black: Referenced several times.
  • Michael Jackson's "Thriller" Parody: See Moonwalk Dance.
  • Moonwalk Dance: Johnny Maxwell and his 1990s gang teach the ghosts in the local cemetery — all of whom died in the period 1850-1948 — how to do the Moonwalk dance. (an affectionate parody of the Thriller video with real Undead). The sight of a corpulent Victorian mayor and a suffragette who died for her beliefs getting really into it is one that provokes much amusement.
  • Mr. Imagination: Johnny, to the point that his imaginations spills over into the real world.
  • Namesake Gag: In Johnny and the Dead, two unconnected people think that the telephone was invented by Sir Humphrey Telephone.
  • Nerd: All four boys aren't even allowed to be nerds because they're not cool enough.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: Johnny successfully avoided his past self. Very lucky for him and his lamp.
  • Newspaper Dating
  • The Nicknamer: Johnny is the "official nickname generator".
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Johnny and his Thousand Extra Lives.
  • The '90s: The books were written and (Time Travel aside) set at this time. The Gulf War is going on in the background in the first novel.
  • Non-Action Guy: Johnny and his friends, even Bigmac, who does his best to play The Heavy. Kirsty, with her martial arts classes, is in fact the most combat-ready of all of them, although they are all barely-adolescent children.
    • The ScreeWee Gunnery Officer is an interesting example of this trope — all the males of his race are supposed to be Non-Action Guys, and his job title in particular means someone responsible for maintenance and training related to weapons outside of combat, with no direct role in battle. Despite this — or perhaps because of this — he's the one who goes over the edge first and becomes a raving Blood Knight who tries to take over the fleet by Klingon Promotion.
  • The Nondescript: Johnny's (un)defining feature. He's so painfully nondescript that when trying to tell Kirsty over the phone which one he is of the group of boys she saw at the store earlier, he can't do any better than "that other guy who just sort of tags along and who no one really notices."
    Kirsty: Huh? I didn't notice any guy like that.
    Johnny: Exactly! That was me!
  • Noodle Incident: Johnny found the Loch Ness Monster in his goldfish pond, discovered a lost city behind Tescos and found a cave which may have had a wizard sleeping in it. We don't get told much more.
    • The 'lost city behind Tesco' bit might be a reference to the Nomes series. Especially since this was later retconned as taking place in Blackbury.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The alien spaceships after Kirsty gets there become quite dirty.
  • Not a Game: War, that is. Only You Can Save Mankind goes into it several times.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: It seems in-between their adventures the heroes are quite bored for most of the time.
  • Obliquely Obfuscated Occupation: In the second book, people keep asking representatives of the holding company trying to buy the cemetery what they actually do. Nobody ever gets an answer.
  • The One Guy: The Gunnery Officer is the only male member of the command crew on the alien ship.
  • The Only One: Inverted. The players of the video game respawn, while the aliens are Killed Off for Real. Also, you're not the only one who can save mankind, and mankind isn't really in that much danger — the aliens are.
  • Ontological Inertia: Present but not absolute.
  • Oop North: Blackbury
  • OOC Is Serious Business: As noted in Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny rarely gets angry - but when he does, people take notice. His rant on the Gulf War gets his class staring at him, and his "The Reason You Suck" Speech against Kirsty leaves her open-mouthed in shock.
  • Opening Scroll: Parodied, and described as "the bit [the developers of the titular computer game] stole from Star Wars".
  • Old-School Dogfight: Though the spaceships in Only You Can Save Mankind have a few missiles, most of the work has to be done by guns.
  • One-Man Army: In the original Only You Can Save Mankind game this is the (predictable) premise of the game, with the player as humanity's last pilot in an experimental Super Prototype craft. Subverted and played straight at the same time in the story — Johnny becomes a One-Man Army as the only human player who accepted the ScreeWee surrender and gave them safe passage, but finds he has to fight against identical clones of his own supposedly unique vessel, piloted by other players of the game.
  • One-Winged Angel: The Gunnery Officer, once he fully embraces his species' original purpose of being monstrous antagonists, becomes a grotesque amalgam of every sci-fi horror alien in Johnny and Kirsty's memories.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Bigmac, Wobbler, and Yo-less. We do eventually find out Wobbler and Bigmac's names, though Johnny has to stop and think about it for a while before remembering what they are.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: It seems Johnny's adventures are taking place in between his own imagination and the real world. Although Kirsty and her pickled onion point towards the latter.
    • Word of God sums it up: "Is what happens in the books real? Yes. Does it all happen in Johnny's head? Yes."
    • At one point Johnny is referred to as the 20th-century suburban equivalent of a shaman, someone with the gift for mediating between the real world and the world of dreams and spirits.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: And resent the term.
    • Premature computer pioneer Addison Vincent Fletcher and Solomon Einstein, cousin to the famous one, attune an abandoned telly to the ghosts of its long-defunct workings, and receive a broadcast of Cobbers.
    Johnny: It's the ghost of a television? ...But... look... machines aren't alive, so how can they have ghosts?
    Solomon: But zey have existence. From moment to moment. Zo, we find the right moment, yes?
    Johnny: ...Nothing ever finishes. Nothing's ever really over.
  • Painting the Medium: Kirsty can pronounce italics [and brackets].
  • Patriotic Fervor: Bigmac in Only You Can Save Mankind, which is set during the First Gulf War. His attempts to inspire it among the other boys, especially Johnny, aren't successful.
  • Police Are Useless: Not only do they get in the way, but they fail to get in the way very successfully.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted in a scene in which a shopkeeper in 1941 uses a racial insult to refer to Yo-less. He is about as impressed as you'd expect.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The ScreeWee are supposed to be this because of the role they were invented for in the game, but it turns out most of them hate fighting and only want the war to be over. In the Captain's opinion, it's humans who are the Blood Knight race. When Johnny protests that he's no killer and to him the war is only a game, she merely asks what kind of species would find amusement in playing games based on war.
  • Punny Name:
    • William Stickers.
    • In addition to being a portmanteau of real Northern English place names, "Blackbury" is (in most UK dialects) pronounced the same as "blackberry", a fact which is lampshaded in Johnny and the Dead when "The Blackbury Preservation Society" and "The Blackbury Conservation Society" are both rejected as names due to sounding too much like jam.
  • Rain of Something Unusual: In Johnny And The Bomb, a bomb lands on the pickle factory during the Blackbury Blitz, causing a short rain of vinegar. Kirsty also mentions a mysterious rain of fish from last September ("You mean, when there was that gas leak under the tropical fish shop?")
  • Ramming Always Works: Johnny realizes he's completely outmatched by Kirsty as a pilot and this is the only way to stop her rampage through the ScreeWee fleet. Even then, it only works because he distracts her by speaking to her.
  • Reality Warper: Johnny when in a state of extreme stress. Or sick with the flu.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Johnny delivers a blistering one to Kirsty calling her out on multiple levels; her Insufferable Genius tendencies, her mistaken Commonality Connection with the Captain, her obsession with winning and for sitting back and watching despite her talents while he, a clumsy and less-skilled Unlikely Hero, died multiple times protecting the ScreeWee. It leaves Kirsty open-mouthed in shock.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The ScreeWee are Lizard Folk (crossed with having some amphibian traits) mainly because of this trope, being a stereotype of Always Chaotic Evil enemies, although under Johnny's influence they gain a bit more depth. Notably the "abhorrent" traits get played up when Kirsty is contributing to the fantasy.
    • The Captain draws Johnny's attention to some of the irony of this trope — because they are cold-blooded and sedentary creatures, the ScreeWee are much less suited to war and have much less taste for it than humans seem to.
  • Resigned to the Call: Johnny. As contrasted with Kirsty, who tends to Jump At The Call.
  • Respawning Enemies: Played with. It turns out the ScreeWee seem to respawn indefinitely but their numbers are, in the "reality" of Johnny's imagination, finite. Confirmed horrifyingly when Johnny finds out that after his dad's generation all stopped playing Space Invaders, the Invaders' civilization went extinct.
  • Riddle for the Ages: We never find out what United Amalgamated Consolidated Holdings actually does.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The plot of Johnny and the Dead comes straight from a contemporary scandal when Westminster Council sold three cemeteries for 5p each.
    • In a subtler example, Only You Can Save Mankind was inspired by the wall-to-wall TV footage of smart bombs hitting Iraq during the The Gulf War, coinciding with heavy coverage of Wing Commander and its imitators as being among the first truly "cinematic" space combat sims. As Pratchett said in his preface to the 2004 reprint, "Games looked like war and war looked like a game", which leads to the reality slippage between the two Johnny experiences.
  • Ripple Effect-Proof Memory: But only for Johnny and Kirsty.
  • Rubber-Band History: To a degree.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: At one point in Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny briefly becomes uncertain whether he's a boy who's having recurring dreams about being a space pilot or a space pilot who's having recurring dreams about being a boy.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: While discussing the possibility of Tele-Frag (see below), they use the example of your body being teleported into occupying the same area as a fridge, and then get sidetracked by arguing about whether you can say a fridge is made up of 'fridge atoms' or 'fridge molecules' or not.
  • Serious Business: The entire series revolves around Johnny taking a serious look at things other people dismiss as unimportant. Also, Kirsty takes everything seriously.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The Captain trying to talk about Earth food. "Pressed wheat extractions treated with sucrose" indeed. Breakfast cereal.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Present.
  • Shipper on Deck: Kirsty's mom for Kirsty and Johnny, although she may just be happy Kirsty is interacting with other people at all.
  • Shoot 'em Up: Only You Can Save Mankind, the game-within-the-book, is this, which makes negotiation difficult — "they don't make joysticks with a Don't Fire button".
  • Shout-Out: Quite a few: [1], [2], [3].
    • Mrs. Tachyon would like you to know MILLENNIUM HAND AND SHRIMP!
    • The dark-robed boatman who collects one of the dead at the end of the second book sounds awfully familiar.
    • The basic setup of the graveyard in Johnny and the Dead appears to be modeled on the afterlife in Our Town, with the dead people keeping vigil at the location of their graves, idly discussing their lives on Earth. (It even has the most cynical and misanthropic of them be the one who committed suicide.)
    • Only You Can Save Mankind mentions Space Invaders by name, and retcons the blocky alien sprites as modular space habitats. Gets the full Fridge Horror treatment as Johnny realizes no one will ever know what the true aliens inside were like, as they are now extinct.
  • Shrouded in Myth: In Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny helps Bigmac after he saw his friends crash their stolen car; this gets mutated, by the next morning, into his having pulled him from the wreck.
  • The Slow Path: Wobbler gets trapped in 1941 and has to get back to the 1990s the long way.
  • The Smart Guy: Kirsty. Yo-less sometimes fills in.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Kirsty absolutely refuses to fit this trope, instead referring to the others as "four token boys".
  • Snap Back: Neither Johnny and the Dead nor Johnny and the Bomb ever mention the weird events in the previous books. (The events of Johnny and the Bomb are themselves subject to Laser-Guided Amnesia but no such thing is mentioned about ghosts and the ScreeWee.) Particularly blatant with Kirsty persistently acting as an Agent Scully when the video game coming to life in Only You Can Save Mankind is the only reason she and Johnny ever even met.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Kirsty is a ruthlessly efficient version.
  • Sole Survivor: Only one of the "Blackbury Pals" made it home from World War I.
  • Space Fighter: In Only You Can Save Mankind
  • Space Is Noisy: Johnny finds out that space has a background noise, a low frequency hum. But since that part of the book may or may not take place in his dreams, it cannot be taken at face value. Maybe.
  • Stealth Pun: Johnny's sometime nickname, revealed in Only You Can Save Mankind, is "Rubber". For those unfamiliar with British slang, a "rubber johnny" is a condom.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: In Johnny and the Dead, both Bigmac and the Dead come up with the idea that the telephone might have been invented by Sir Humphrey Telephone.
  • Subliminal Seduction: Wobbler once returned a Cliff Richard record (changed to Pat Boone in the US edition), claiming that when he played it backwards he could hear messages about staying in school and going to church.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: In Johnny and the Bomb, Wobbler is unconvinced by Bigmac's claim that he doesn't know a thing, especially not about burgers.
  • Talkative Loon: Mrs. Tachyon.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: In Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny has recurring dreams of being a fighter pilot in the world of the video game. Then he recognizes the voice of another pilot as a girl he's seen around the game shop, and is able to strike up a conversation that leads to them meeting in the real world.
  • Tele-Frag: It is theorized that occupying the same place as a solid object might be a very bad idea, for reasons involving the atoms fusing together.
  • The Tetris Effect: Johnny initially believes his starfighter dreams are merely an example of this.
  • There Are No Therapists: Johnny is shocked to find this is the case in 1941 after a street is bombed; the victims are offered a Spot of Tea and start picking up the rubble almost immediately.
  • The Unchosen One: In Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny finds out Kirsty actually received the ScreeWee surrender message before he did, and was their original choice for the "Chosen One", but was too fixated on winning the game and ignored it. See "Unlikely Hero" below.
  • Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: Averted.
  • Time Machine: A shopping trolley of all things.
  • Time Master: Johnny, but only for a little while.
  • Time Police: Referenced but averted.
  • Time Travel
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: Wobbler opens a fast-food restaurant after being trapped in the past. Also whenever someone gives Mrs Tachyon a coin, she goes to whatever date is printed on it to spend it, getting the maximum value for money, e.g. if a 10p given in the '90s is dated 1961, it can be spent as 2 shillings or 24pence in 1961.
  • Time-Travelers Are Spies: Both Bigmac and Wobbler get mistaken for spies.
  • The Time Traveller's Dilemma: A brief concern soon forgotten.
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: "There's an old windmill up there. It was some kind of look-out post during the war. Is, I mean."
  • Tradesnark™: The opening scroll of the in-story game Only You Can Save Mankind has TM signs liberally scattered across it. Only You Can Save Mankind™ from the Screewee Empire™! In a bonus joke, the small print at the end reveals that it's the words "Mankind" and "Empire" that are trademarks of the software publisher, not the whole phrases.
  • 2-D Space: Only You Can Save Mankind is a post-Wing Commander space shooter and thus takes place in a true 3-D environment (unlike Johnny's dad's beloved Space Invaders). However, most of the players (like Khan) instinctively think two-dimensionally, only thinking to move along the Z-axis after awkwardly positioning themselves in 2D space. When Johnny sees that Kirsty doesn't think like this and flies around in 3D as naturally as a bird he has a major Oh, Crap! moment.
  • Unlikely Hero: The whole point of Johnny's character is this. None of the people who are obsessed enough with the Only You Can Save Mankind game to be good at it would ever think to see the game from the aliens' perspective; only a loser like Johnny would end up in his situation. Same with Johnny and the Dead, where the all the local politicians and businessmen who understand the situation just let the cemetery acquisition happen and only Johnny cares enough to stop it. Made explicit in Only You Can Save Mankind, where he throws a "The Reason You Suck" Speech at Kirsty — about how unfair it is that the world is set up so that the people with the useful skills and resources are also the ones who, in the course of acquiring them, have come to accept the world the way it is, and it's up to naïve, clumsy outsiders like him to actually care about fixing things.
  • Unstuck in Time: Mrs. Tachyon's mind.
  • Urban Fantasy
  • Used Future: Johnny's imagination paints the inside of his starfighter as having a kind of "grimy cleanliness" about it. The alien ship is cleaner and shinier when he visits, because that's the way alien ships look in his head, but gets dirtier when Kirsty visits, because her idea of a spaceship is influenced by movies like Alien.
  • Van in Black: One chases Johnny and Kirsty.
  • Walking Techbane: Wobbler, half the time.
  • Weirdness Censor: People find it difficult to notice anything amiss, even when it's staring them right in the face. Johnny's complete lack of one is a major factor in the books.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Johnny.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Gunnery Captain is initially this, before turning Ax-Crazy. Kirsty can sometimes get carried away as well.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Perhaps the entire point of Only You Can Save Mankind
  • When All You Have is a Hammer…: An accusation leveled at Kirsty by Johnny.
  • The Whitest Black Guy: Johnny and his friends nickname their black friend "Yo-less", specifically because he doesn't talk, dress, or behave like the then-current stereotypes of a black male (including the then-considered-black-specific slang "yo").
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The location of "Blackbury" is never specifically mentioned, but it is a decaying post-industrial town of the sort whose decay was accelerated in The '80s by Margaret Thatcher. It is usually thought of as being Oop North: the name is a portmanteau of genuine Northern English placenames: Blackburn, Bury, Dewsbury. Interestingly enough, one of the local papers slso serves a neighbouring town called Grimethorpe, suggesting Johnny Maxwell and the Nomes live in the same universe not too far away.
  • Win to Exit: More accurately, "Exit To Win". The 'Border' that the Screewee must cross is revealed to be a giant screen with the words "GAME OVER" on it.
  • With Due Respect: In Only You Can Save Mankind, the Navigation Officer ends her objection with "With respect."
  • Women Are Wiser: Kirsty thinks this, being a bit of a Straw Feminist. Interestingly this seems to be the case with the ScreeWee officers, with the only male, the Gunnery Officer, being the one who goes off the deep end. But it's an inversion, with the ScreeWee being a matriarchy where the females are larger and stronger; indeed, in what may be Unfortunate Implications, the Captain theorizes it's the stress of going outside his prescribed gender role that caused the Gunnery Officer to crack.

The TV adaptations additionally contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Kiss: Kirsty gets overexcited and kisses Johnny.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: In the Johnny and the Bomb movie, Kirsty is sweet on Johnny, though the book never explicitly stated such a thing.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Kirsty's clothes get wet in Johnny And The Bomb. As if she wasn't upset enough about having to wear a frock.

Alternative Title(s): Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny And The Bomb, Johnny And The Dead


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