Genetic engineering used to be purely science fiction. It’s a mark of how far we’ve come that these things are now becoming part of our everyday world. The once-hypothetical question of how to deal with augmented athletes in events like the Olympics is no longer so hypothetical. In The Games, Ted Kosmatka deals with the question in a simple way: no tinkering with the human athletes, but attach a single event that allows countries to showcase their skills at genetic engineering. This is a blood match between designer monsters, and the United States has taken the gold every time. But the pressure is on to triumph again, and so the commission in charge takes control out of the hands of Silas Williams and has an experimental supercomputer design the monster instead. I’ll let you guess what happens.
At first glance, The Games seems like a cheesy science-fiction thriller, easily dismissed as “probably enjoyable but not all that fulfilling”. I gave it a try anyway, and my estimation was almost spot-on. It simmers for the first half, carefully laying out all the threads that will come together for the bloody climax. Then The Games discards that disguise in the second half to reveal itself as the adrenaline-fuelled thriller it wants to be.
There are some interesting ideas floating around here. The idea of designing creatures purely to fight to the death, while it rises moral qualms, is a fascinating look at the possible celebrity applications of genetic engineering. Kosmatka doesn’t spend much time explaining how his near-future society differs from the present day; he definitely shows instead of tells. His characters drive hybrids, and there are hints of eerie differences like a “track” system that uses testing to determine what field of study the government will finance for each person. These are all nice touches because they communicate a sense of difference without actually getting in the way of the story.
Likewise, I enjoyed the philosophical tension inherent in the gladiator competition. On one hand, this is the elevation of science to an art form. As Silas observes, this competition provides an opportunity for countries as well as individual scientists to show what they can do. And the byproduct of all this time spent designing killer creatures is nothing to shake a stick at: medicines, new gene therapies, and all sorts of important scientific discoveries. Although I can sympathize with the protesters outside the stadium, there is a lot to be said in favour of the competition.
On the other hand, there is a darker side. Winning the games has become a point of national pride for the United States. Chekhov once said, “There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science.” And that is precisely how I feel about this competition: it’s a perversion of science, not because of what is being created but why it is being created at all. And there’s more than national pride at stake—the competition attracts large donors, and the companies in charge of manufacturing these creatures like that cash flow. Winning is an important way to secure contracts and accounts, and it’s this avarice that naturally leads to everything going FUBAR in the third act.
So Kosmatka sets up a very satisfying conflict on metaphysical as well as physical levels. Unfortunately, I hated the resolution of this thriller. I don’t mind what happens to Silas or to his reputation. (Is that cold and callous? Or is it merely a sign of how little I invest in one-dimensional thriller characters?) However, I wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance in front of some kind of board of inquiry; I wanted him to answer for what he did. Instead he gets incinerated in a rather impersonal nuclear blast. What kind of justice is that?
Don’t even get me started about the relationship between Silas and Vidonia. Any hope The Games had of being anything more than a cheesy thriller went out the window the moment we learned the supporting character was an impossibly hot female scientist. Naturally enough, they hook up, because it just wouldn’t be right for the male and female leads in a thriller to be just friends. This is but one of the many branches The Games hit as it fell out of the cliché tree.
Oh, and there’s an entire subplot involving the nascent sentience of the supercomputer. As with everything else about this book, it is predictable and features nothing I haven’t seen done better elsewhere.
The Games isn’t quite as bad as Fragment. It restricts itself to a smaller cast of characters, to good effect, and its plot makes more sense, if it is somewhat dull in its plodding predictability. Both of these books have a biological bent to their science-fictional premises, which is probably why one reminded me of the other—but The Games’ premise has far more interesting social and ethical consequences than the reality-TV-show ideas in Fragment.
As I’ve said before, I’m somewhat biased against thrillers. They can’t help being what they are. The Games probably isn’t bad as far as thrillers go, nor is it all that good. It’s mostly just unremarkable. As a work of science fiction, it raises interesting questions about issues that are on our doorstep. But flat characters and an uncomplicated plot make this book difficult to praise as anything more than mediocre.