Invitation to The Game (1990), by Monica Hughes

My first impression of Monica Hughes’s Invitation to The Game was not favourable, but that has everything to do with the publisher, and nothing to do with the story. HarperTrophy Canada really should think a bit more about their printing process. The font is too dark, the characters’ size and shape irregular, and the leading too close. Thank goodness for good reading glasses.

Once I began the book, I was quickly sucked into the narrative, enough to forget the problem with the typeface. The set-up was so strongly reminiscent of my recollection of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) that the images overlapped as I read. The differences were significant, the plots entirely different; but as the narrative progressed I felt shadowy layers of other YA dystopias building into a palimpsest of characters and setting and tone. The layers were so thin, and so many, that the novel did not feel entirely derivative, as some do.

Here, I have to admit my strong tendency to dive right into books, without reading about the authors, their other books, the setting of their stories, or anything, including the date the book was written. This last one I often have had to rectify shortly after beginning, especially when something feels familiar, or anachronistic. So I was not shocked when I finally checked the publication date of Invitation to The Game (1990) and realized that—for the most part—it cannot be derivative, because it came before most of the stories whose shadows were filling in the corners of my reading experience.

The premise of Invitation to The Game is simple. As in Never Let Me Go, a group of teens have graduated from high school and are starting out as adults in the working world, only to discover that they are unwilling pawns in a governmental program. As in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), they are assigned a role in their society, with no recourse should the assignment be unwelcome. In Invitation, however, one of the options—indeed the most common option, it seems—is “Unemployed.” This adds a political complexity to the novel that is missing from many YA dystopias. Hughes’s version of socialism taken to an extreme is not an argument ad absurdum, but a valid consideration of a possible outcome of the Basic Income economic policy if poorly implemented. As the story unfolds, the political reality of Earth in 2154 is revealed: the almost-desolation of humankind in the late 2000s; the revitalizing rise of robotics and AI; the resulting overpopulation and increasing governmental control.

[some spoilers from here…]

In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), the game Ender plays turns out to be real; the child becomes the pawn of the military, engaged in a very adult war. In Invitation, the friends are not sure where they go when they play The Game, but readers aware of Card’s earlier novel will be rightfully suspicious. The spidey senses of readers of Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955) will be even more tingly. In Heinlein’s novel, a group of students are sent into an unknown world as the final exam in an “Advanced Survival” course for potential interstellar colonists. A technical glitch strands the class on the test planet, where they need to survive for far longer than anticipated. (To step back a little further, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published the previous year, in 1954.) In Invitation, though, the friends are transported into The Game in what readers today will recognize as a virtual-reality gaming system; 1990 readers might have seen the similarities to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), in which humans are physically connected to a virtual-reality dataspace that functions in parallel with the recognizable world. Neuromancer is in many ways the impetus for the 1999 movie The Matrix; Invitation lies directly between these two cultural icons, but shares with them both the notion of “jacking in” to the data matrix:

“What fools you are! … Look at all the time you’ve been wasting! On what? On a computer-induced dream experience, that’s all. You haven’t really been anywhere. You haven’t really seen anything. You’ve been lying on couches with electrodes attached to your stupid skulls.”

“I don’t believe you. It’s real. It has to be. If it isn’t real what have we got? … The Game country’s real, Rich, much more real than this.”

The Game’s country is not real, but it serves a very real purpose, both psychologically and politically. Perhaps the greatest strength of Hughes’s rather fabulous novel is the balanced, considered view of the political and social issues that give rise to the structure and, in fact, the very existence of The Game. The narrator notes that their responses to their situation parallel those of individuals with terminal diseases: denial, anger, self-pity, resignation… and finally acceptance. It is the acceptance that makes Invitation to The Game such a satisfying story. As the friends move towards understanding—and acceptance—the reader begins to piece together the relationship between Earth in 2154 and the Earth we live on today. In 1990, the novel was an imaginative dystopia; modern readers will, I believe, find Invitation to The Game more pertinent than Hughes’s original audience. If so, I can understand the bit-part character, Barb, whose life’s (thwarted) ambition is to be invited to The Game, to have the chance to fight for the prize in a world where there is no hope except escape.

A list of narratives that sprung to mind while reading:

  • 1955: Tunnel in the Sky (Robert A. Heinlein)
  • 1984: Neuromancer (William Gibson)
  • 1985: Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
  • 1993: The Giver (Lois Lowry)
  • 1995: Running Out of Time (Margaret Peterson Haddix)
  • 1999: The Matrix (movie; the Wachowskis)
  • 2002: Firefly (TV series; Joss Whedon)
  • 2003: Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
  • 2005: Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

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