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)

Sophie Trophy (2019), by Eileen Holland

Holland - Sophie TrophyIllustrated by Brooke Kerrigan

As soon as her schoolday begins, Sophie’s rich and mercurial imagination lands her in an ever-deepening quagmire of trouble, and her escapades keep us riveted to the page. We can see the images in her head as she imagines them; we can feel the doubts and insecurities of an eight-year-old in her thoughts and the choices she makes. As an adult reader, I spent most of the book seeing those choices simultaneously through Sophie’s eyes and those of the adults around her. This double-vision gave me pause: is this what’s possibly going on inside the head of a child behaving in bizarre and seemingly random ways? Eileen Holland has me convinced that it is.

But before I continue with how that is so, I’d like to make an unconnected observation about the title.

Sophie’s best friend Brayden tells her “Someone should give you a trophy, Sophie, for the goofiest ideas ever.” Quite the compliment. But another little urchin in the class taunts: “Sophie Trophy! That’s what I’m going to call you from now on!” (2). The adult in me says: Still a compliment, actually, young dude. But of course that is not how kids take these things. His taunting irks the protagonists but isn’t the major focus of the story, and in the end Sophie calls him on it:

“Stop calling me that, Jordy.”
“Why? It’s funny.”
“Not if you say it to be mean.”

Simple. To the point. Still something a child would say. It really brings home the important message that “it’s only funny if it’s funny to everyone.” A very small part of the narrative, yet it resonates so strongly…

But back to the actual story.

It all begins when Jordy lets Bradley’s pet spider out of its jar and the teacher freaks out. Arachnophobia is no joke, and the children recognize it as a problem that they have upset their beloved teacher. Sophie’s “spider-scientist face” (5) is replaced by a “worried-girl look” (8), but the damage has been done. The plot flows from here like a rube-goldberg device; each of Sophie’s responses understandably misinterpreted by her teach and principal, because a “butterfly-tummy squiggly” Sophie is (again, understandably) not the most articulate. It all works out in the end, and we are left with a “happy-heart feeling” (88).

Holland’s compound adjectives really help us feel like we are inside Sophie’s head, and the vivid stories Sophie makes up about her world are both scattered and intensely detailed. She sees Africa through the lens of a pencil hole drilled through an eraser, “like using Dad’s special camera” (40). The spring in the click-pen she dismantles becomes a pogo-stick, as she imagines herself “hopping through the schoolyard. Sproing! Sproing! Sproing!

Kids would stop playing soccer. They’d come to see her from every corner of the playground. “There goes Sophie,” they’d say, “she saved Miss Ruby from a spider.” (48)

Invariably, the real world comes crashing back in. The movement from imagination to reality is like a joyously bubbling stream of consciousness, and despite the problems Sophie’s distractedness causes, we are left in no doubt that there’s nothing wrong with being the way she is.

The Awakening: The Darkest Powers #2 (2010), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve just finished re-reading The Awakening as part of my friend’s research project, and have to admit that with my review of The Reckoning when it was first published (2010), and my recent review of The Summoning (2010), I haven’t really a lot to say. Still, I thought I would share my few thoughts. They relate, not too surprisingly, to my perhaps overly strong opinions about trilogies and series fiction, expressed elsewhere.

The Darkest Powers is unequivocally a trilogy not a series, which is not an issue. The problem I have is that the author wrote the beginning chapters of the second book, The Awakening, as if it were a stand-alone part of a series and the reader would not have read The Summoning. Even with the not-so-subtle reminders of the plot and characters, The Awakening cannot stand alone. As you know, I am totally fine with that, but authors need to know what it is they are writing. It seems to me that Kelley Armstrong did know, and yet was convinced (by self or others) to cater to the still-current trend in teen fiction of needing a series to be open-ended, permitting publishers to continue (should they so desire) with a solid franchise (should the story turn out to be one). The existence of the three books in Darkness Rising and a number of intermediary stories and prequels that form the series, suggest that Armstrong had an intended, overarching narrative that has been hijacked by financial or other expediencies. I have absolutely no basis for my opinion, of course, except my discomfort with the texts as a set. I have yet to read Darkness Rising; that trilogy is next on my list, and I will let you know then whether my perception changes.

Aside from my concerns about genre, The Awakening is a strong continuation of Chloe and her friends’ story. Armstrong leads her characters through a maze (or three) of doubts about who to trust, what to do, where their strengths lie, how to navigate a world that they don’t understand. As they slowly learn about themselves and their beginnings as part of a paranormal experiment, the reader is left—as are they—with a sense of confusion and tension that is still strong at the conclusion. At the end of The Summoning, Chloe and Rae are captured; at the end of The Awakening, the players on Chloe’s team have changed; allies have been killed or turned; and we watch them surrender themselves to the care an adult who may or many not be safe to trust. Like the teens, we really hope that after all the betrayal and emotional pain they have suffered they are finally heading to a safe space. That hope is mitigated, though, by the knowledge that there is still one more book…

The Summoning: The Darkest Powers #1 (2008), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve promised to fill in a questionnaire about Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning for a friend’s research project, so I set myself to reread the series (the questionnaire rather requires it). I remembered reviewing The Reckoning (2010) when it came out, and being gratifyingly surprised at how much I enjoyed the series, but I guess time had mellowed my recollections. Picking up The Summoning for a second time, I was again immediately sucked in to the powerful world of Chloe and her friends. Fortunately, I have a horrible memory for plot (hence the need to reread), so it was (mostly) all new the second time around. But equally enthralling. I read it through in one sitting, only rising for a Skype meeting in the afternoon and to make dinner in the evening. Almost reneged on that responsibility, actually.

All that I said about The Reckoning remains true (and please read it so I don’t have to repeat myself). Chloe and her friends and associates are very realistically drawn—for teens who have paranormal abilities—and their struggles translate easily into the lives of less “special” teens in the general North American population (even better, I would hazard to guess, for otherly-“special” teens in the general North American population).

We meet Chloe as a young child afraid to go down into the basement: not an unusual childhood fear. Chloe, though, is afraid because there really are ghosts, and they speak to her. Sometimes they are benign, but sometimes they are evil and malicious. Her trauma causes her parents to move, and she settles into a normal life. We meet her again as a teen on the cusp of adolescence. Her repressed memories come back as she crosses over that cusp (gets her period) and the ghost of a dead custodian at her school reaches out to her. Things go downhill from there, and Chloe ends up in a group home for a two-week diagnostic and therapeutic visit. She finds herself in a classic situation of emotional and psychological tension: is she crazy, schizophrenic, as she is told? Are the other teens crazy? Why are they here, and is she in danger from them? Who can she trust? By the end of the book, she still hasn’t answered that last question, although the answers to the first two have become clearer. She is not crazy: she is a necromancer; the ghosts cannot actually hurt her, despite her fear. This is a powerful realization, but not sufficient to keep her safe. She learns the stories of some of the other teens, but not all. And she really doesn’t know who to trust. And she gets it wrong.

Cue the end of the book.

This would be troubling if the second novel in the series (yes, thankfully, series, not trilogy, as stated on the cover of The Reckoning) were not available, but at this point, one can just read on (if Book #2, The Awakening (2010), weren’t out of the library as usual even now). And this time around, I will be able to carry on immediately reading the second series, Darkness Rising: The Gathering (2012), The Calling (2013), and The Rising (2014). In rereading my own earlier review I note that The Reckoning leaves the teens set up to take on the world as they know it. I can’t wait to see how that goes for them.