A Bleak and Desperate Future: Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game

In previous books, Monica Hughes had given quick side looks at a badly overpopulated, dreary, desperate world. In Invitation to the Game, she takes us to that world, and it’s even bleaker and more desperate than it sounded at first glance.

So desperate, that when people get even a hint of something else—say, a mysterious, high risk game taking place in another location—they will do anything to enter it. Anything.

Lisse has been sent to a decently regarded school that, when she arrived, offered 90% employment after graduation. Maybe. Now, that rate has plummeted down to 10%—not so much because of the quality of teachers or students, but because of advanced robotics, which have eliminated most jobs throughout the world. Some students—Lisse’s friend Benta, for instance, or her not exactly friend Rich—are lucky enough to have somewhat secure futures thanks to family connections.

(And here, I have to give Hughes some major credit: my notes on this book read: human jobs still available on farms? Aren’t farms mechanized now as it is? Not to give everything away, but I will say that Hughes anticipated and answered my objection before the end of the book. So consider it gone.)

In any case, it’s not surprising that Lisse, despite decent grades, finds herself joining the ranks of the unemployed. It’s not too terrible, robots assure her. She will have a small stipend from the government to cover food and clothing; she will be assigned to a specific sector of the city; and she can always eat at government cafeterias. Since Hughes has already established in previous books that robots can very definitely lie, it’s not surprising to find that this robot is lying too. Well, not about the government cafeteria part, but everything else.

Terrified, Lisse ends up banding together with seven other friends from school (this is a nice touch) after getting abandoned in a city sector. As they soon find, their housing options are limited, to say the least; their food, even with the government cafeteria, barely adequate, and they have to scrounge for little things like furniture. And if all this isn’t enough, they face the ongoing scorn from those who have obtained jobs, who are furious that their tax dollars are being wasted on providing for such obviously lazy people. (The anvils here are somewhat heavy; let’s just say that you will not end this novel in much doubt about Hughes’ politics.)

They are all about to fall into complete despair until, by chance, they hear rumors about a game played off—somewhere. No-one seems to know much about it, but after asking a few questions and investigating, the eight friends find themselves getting subway tokens allowing them to travel to the Game. Which turns out to bring them—perhaps through hypnosis, perhaps through something else—to a marvelous place that has almost no people.

Returning is a severe blow, especially for Lisse, who almost seems to have a nervous breakdown. It does, however, galvanize the entire group to start to work towards self improvement and study everything they can possibly learn about wild, empty spaces from their local library. They run, and run and run, and paint and create to earn credits to purchase things that can help them survive in the world of the game—until they learn that they won’t be able to bring anything but their minds. But those minds might just be enough.

And when not preparing for the Game, they wonder: is it real? Is it self-hypnosis? What, exactly, is the prize? Is it, as their amateur psychologist friend Rich suggests, an elaborate form of aversion therapy intended to keep the unemployed in line, or at least, distracted? What is the prize? What other groups are involved?

The twist ending probably won’t be that much of a twist for careful readers or for anyone that’s read most of Monica Hughes’ other works, and I have more than a few quibbles about it. Without spoiling too much, for instance, I can’t say I entirely agree with Lisse’s contention that fighting as a unit with her friends has turned them into a family—a real family—who are so close to each other that the thought of romantic, sexual relationships with one another is impossible. I’m not saying that fighting together wouldn’t make them closer, but the entire argument smacks more of an author not wanting to derail her work with teenage sex and angst. That’s understandable, but not realistic: the idea that lonely, desperate, generally good looking teenagers (they’re all between seventeen to twenty) would not end up hooking up in some way or form after becoming closer is, well, not something I’m able to buy.

That this also turns out to be partly a way to avoid having any of the girls get pregnant (for plot reasons) and to handwave certain issues with the ending doesn’t really help. And speaking of that ending—can we note a couple of giant, huge, plot holes there? And…again trying not to spoil—I can’t help but think that everyone accepts the ending far, far too easily, aversion therapy or no aversion therapy. And one large question remains unanswered: why, exactly, is Lisse part of this?

And, of course, the issue that this is yet another book that argues that humanity is much better off without all of that pesky technology stuff. In this case, since Hughes carefully put time into building the horrors of the excessively technology dependent, overpopulated society, it does work considerably better than some of her other books, but once again, I found myself clinging to my tablets, espresso, whirlpool baths, eyeglasses, and electric trike—all things I count as Good Things That Technology Has Given Us.

Still, this is a large improvement over Hughes’ earlier works, and if you want a sense of her anti-technology stance, in a more fast paced, suspenseful book than her usual, this is probably the book to pick.

Hughes continued to write after Invitation to the Game, of course. But these later books typically were either mainstream young adult novels (for instance, The Seven Magpies) or minor variations on previous books (The Other Place, which is more or less The Invitation to the Game, except with a little less time spent in the original, high tech dystopia.) The one slight exception, The Golden Aquarians, also mostly recycles familiar themes: technology, bad, the simple life, good, making planets safe for humanity bad, aliens that stop this, good, also, tidal wave.

It’s an interesting instance of where a single, political obsession that in itself was not inherently wrong led a writer to move from nuance to stridency, from fascinating looks at cultural clashes (Crisis on Conshelf 10, The Keeper of the Isis Light) to books that make for difficult reading. I can recommend those two books. But I won’t be subjecting Tor.com readers to more reviews of her books.

Next week, thanks to the ICFA conference and some minor medical stuff, I’m off, but I’ll be back the week after that with a new, slightly different reread/rewatch project that may have many of you wishing upon a star.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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