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)

MINRS (2016), by Kevin Sylvester

MINRS has just been short-listed for the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, so I thought I had better finish my review and post it post-haste. I read the novel in early February, and it took me this long to review it because 1) I didn’t think I could review it without spoilers (but I think I managed), and 2) I didn’t think I could really do it justice (and I’m not sure I have managed). Regardless, here is my review…

MINRS

Sylvester - MINRS

To begin, any of you who have read my reviews about novel series in which each book does not stand alone will know how much I hate cliffhangers. And MINRS definitely has a cliffhanger. The last three words. That is all it took. Up until that point, I thought I knew where it was going. Thank you, Mr. Sylvester. No, I take that back. Or maybe not, as up until those three words, MINRS is one of the most gripping YA space novels I have read in a long, long while.

When I first read the description, I thought “ Well, that concept seems a bit derivative…” but I was very wrong. The dust-jacket flap tells us that

Earth is running out of resources, so Melming Mining looks to space and launches the Great Mission to Perses, the newest planetoid in the solar system. It’s humanity’s only hope for survival. … Christopher and a small group of young survivors are forced into the maze of mining tunnels below the surface of Perses. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

Space exploration and settlement as “humanity’s only hope for survival,” of course, is not a new concept, nor is having a group of teenagers separated from their adults in order to save humanity; but in MINRS, interesting scientific concepts couple with strong, consistent characters to create an unpredictable plot that holds us in thrall.

The novel opens with a tension in the small community fuelled by the upcoming Blackout, a two-month period when the sun will lie between Perses and the Earth, causing not total darkness but a full communication blackout. To assuage anxieties, the adults are convinced to throw a “Blackout party,” which goes really well… until it doesn’t. Instead of fireworks to mark the moment blackout is complete, bombs are hurled down from the sky above them, decimating the terra-formed field. Then the more accurate energy-pulse bullets rain down, killing everyone they can reach. Christopher is one of the teenagers successfully pushed towards the mines, one of only a handful of survivors hidden from the mineral-ore raiders who believe they have annihilated the population. Christopher’s father makes him promise to keep the others safe, and tells him of a beacon placed deep inside the mines by a few of the more pragmatic adults. But the beacon will not work in the blackout; the teens must find a way to survive in the shell-damaged mines for the next two months.

That is the set-up for the action that follows: the running, hiding, and eventual pillaging of the “Landers” storeroom and sabotaging of their machinery. My description makes it sound way less innovative and impressive than it is. What really moves me is Sylvester’s insightful expression of the balances of power that develop amongst the teens, and the internal and external conflicts that inform that balance. Underlying more traditional explorations of the bildungsroman development of character is a sense of noblesse oblige: Chris and his best friend, Elena, discovering that their unique strengths create an obligation to use those strengths for the good of the group, regardless of individual desires. Again, my description makes it sound far more trite than the emotional depth Sylvester shows us. In the tunnels of Perses, Chris and his rag-tag fugitives (sorry, I had to) learn more than just how to survive: they learn some of the darker secrets of the company that created Perses and of what people—even those they admire—are capable of.

Hunted (2012), by Cheryl Rainfield

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 17.5.

Hunted


While I was reading Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted, I attended a lecture by Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion.  Listening to Armstrong, lines and scenes from Hunted repeatedly rose up in my mind, and I thought: this is more than a dystopic novel about oppression and intolerance (which it is); it is a powerful narrative example of the strength it takes, within an oppressive culture, to maintain one’s sense of humanity.

In Hunted, Caitlyn and her mother are continually running, changing names, schools, lives… because Caitlyn is a “Paranormal,” a telepathic who can read others’ thoughts and emotions: a power that frightens those without it. In Caitlyn’s world, Paranormals of all kinds must be registered, and once registered, are removed from society and tortured, sometimes forced to hunt other “Paras.” During the uprising that led to this abusive system, Caitlyn’s father was murdered and her brother Daniel taken away; she and her mother fled. After years of running, Caitlyn finally needs to stop, to rest, to blend in. Rejoining society—as much as she is able—is difficult, dangerous, and yet rewarding. Her two new “Normal” friends are similarly, if not equally outcast: Rachel is lesbian and Alex is black. While Rachel’s lesbianism is highlighted as a consideration in her relationship with Caitlyn, Alex’s race is not sufficiently apparent to the reader. When we meet him, we are told that “his skin contrasts with his crisp white shirt” (30), but that could make him Mediterranean, or even just well-tanned. Once, later, Caitlyn mentions his “springy black curls” (148), but no other mention is made until almost he end of the book, when the term “black” is finally used. In our white-washed world, a few more hints would be welcome.

The political aspects of the plot—too complicated to delineate but solidly structured and effective—lead to a crisis for which Caitlyn’s online avatar, Teen-Para, has been made the scapegoat. In the end, sacrifices are made by individuals on both sides, and readers are left with a strong message regarding blanket assumptions about good and evil. Caitlyn’s faith in the goodness, the inherent humanity, of “Normals” is justified, as is her wariness of belief in anyone merely because they are paranormal. There are hints here of Katniss’s response to the politics of Panem in the end of the Hunger Games trilogy: a group being oppressed and thus rebellious does not necessarily equate with that group being right or justified.  What Caitlyn and the reader have reinforced is a message of tolerance of difference, and a wariness of all individuals who seek power at the expense of others.

The Charter for Compassion expounds that “compassion is not an option; it is the key to our survival” (Alastair Smith, Greater Vancouver Compassion Network); faithful to this humanist tenet, Caitlyn strives to create the compassionate world her father envisioned: “Dad dreamed of a world where we could live freely—but he also taught me that all life is precious, Normal or Paranormal, and that we’re all in this together” (294). The power of Hunted is that by the end of the novel, the reader is sure that she is right.

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.