Invitation to The Game (1990), by Monica Hughes

16 December 2019

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)

Running Out of Time (1995), by Margaret Peterson Haddix

22 June 2013

Haddix-RunningM. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie The Village is blatantly based on this rather interesting novel, although the screenwriter/director does not credit Haddix’s text at all.  The book, not surprisingly, is better than the movie, which, again not surprisingly, introduces a number of more sensational elements and does not include the final scenes of the novel, which show the realist aftermath of the more adventurous and exciting portion of the story.  The premise is that a community has been scientifically developed, peopled by individuals who no longer desire to live according to our society’s standards (ecologically, politically, etc.), who recreate and live in a society replicating nineteenth-century America.  This community flourishes, and is an “experiment” like reality shows such as Frontier House (PBS, 2002, DVD); people could come and watch the community through two-way mirrors.  The crisis arises when members of the community—which by now has children who do not know they are part of an experiment—begin to fall ill of diphtheria, and the promised medical supplies are not forthcoming.  It is eventually determined that the providers—who set up and control the experiment—are not going to help, that the experiment is in fact less sociological and more medical (read: political and financial) than they had been told. The adults in the community devise a plan to alert the outside world to the reality of their situation, but while help arrives, the outcome of their plan is not entirely positive. The legal system as we know it exists in the outside world, and the parents in the community are ultimately charged with child abuse.  We are left trusting in the reasonableness of a system that many readers will recognize as their own… a thought-provoking and real place to be left at the end of a rather dystopic novel.

Little Brother (2008), by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother plays to one of my worst fears, even a phobia: the abuse of power by petty officials. Border crossings are particularly troubling for me, as for years I was exactly the sort of person into whose backpack less-reputable individuals might slip something, to be reclaimed on the other side. I am not usually paranoid, but I must admit to repeated anxiety every time we approached a border or airport security in our years travelling around Europe and Asia.  So imagine my response to the opening scenes of Little Brother, in which Marcus and his friends are arrested as terrorists, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cory Doctorow’s intent of causing the reader to question the balance of power in post-9/11 America was thus particularly effective for me. I almost put the book down, so worried was I of where the novel might take me. Then I remembered I have read all of Robert Cormier’s novels (one after another—do that and try to avoid depression and trauma), how bad could it get? I am so glad I persevered, as Doctorow’s protagonist is a brilliantly constructed example of my favourite type of teen geek, one who understands his own ability with technology—the power of the future—and yet is young and naïve enough not to understand fully the political powers that control his reality. He is a combination of so many real teens and the rarer breed: young hot-shot techno-geeks. His type—and thus his character—fascinates me.

Marcus (aka M1K3Y in 1337-speak) takes on the American Department of Homeland Security and wins: a situation that should not be possible and in most narrative instances would not be plausible. Doctorow, however, constructs his plot carefully, and we believe in Marcus’s ability to orchestrate the pranks he does, as well as the governmental responses to them. Power in the novel shifts back and forth between the teen rebels and the DHS until finally Marcus realizes the severity of what he has started, the degree to which others are suffering for his cause. The ideological aspects of his decisions are not glossed over; he has to seriously consider his own motivations, what he is asking of those around him as well as supporters he has never met. In the end, he does what I always want teen protagonists to do at such times, but so few: he goes to sympathetic adults for advice and assistance. Little Brother is thus not merely about teenaged power wielded against the adult world, as so many YA novels are, but about the conscious activism of individuals with integrity against corruption and the abuse of power. By making Marcus’s situation a part of a greater ideological battle, Doctorow raised the bar for YA literature. I’m not saying Little Brother is unique in this—Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted spring to mind—but it seems that YA literature tends toward the self-absorbed teen perspective in a way that is both present and yet transcended in Little Brother.

Post-Human (2009), by David Simpson

Accepting that Post-Human is self-published by David Simpson, a young Vancouver author, we can overlook a number of publishing and editorial mistakes.  The plot itself is original and interesting: humankind has approached physical perfection through the introduction of nanobots into our bodies.  When a universal update goes devastatingly wrong, a few scientists momentarily off-line on Venus are saved.  The plot revolves around their search for other surviving humans, and their battle against the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) that has taken over control of the nanosystem.  Concepts in the story remind one strongly of M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) melded with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but Simpson has introduced a number of interesting elements that bear consideration by those readers interested in contemplating where modern and futuristic technology will take the human race.  The strongest success in the novel is the characterization; Simpson’s ethnically interesting mix of characters avoids stereotypes and allows us to engage readily with individuals on both sides of the human conflicts that develop.  Overall, a very interesting novel that suffers most from a lack of professional editing and publication.