Monica Hughes

Invitation To The Game

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Invitation To The Game Summary

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Monica’s Hughes’s young adult dystopian novel Invitation to the Game (1990) was republished in 2010 with the title The Game. In the year 2154, robots have evolved as the dominant labor force on Earth following a plunge in the human population due to excessive pollution. Now the population has rebounded, but robotic technology severely curtails human employment. The authoritarian government selects the lucky few who get jobs. Sixteen-year-old Lisse is among the many unlucky ones consigned indefinitely to the unemployed class. Her future seems bleak until she and her friends become immersed in the “Game,” a virtual reality which may be just a simulation, or all too real.

Lisse, the story’s first-person narrator, enjoys writing and has performed well at the government school where she’s lived for the past ten years. Anxiety grips her on graduation day when she and her friends will receive their employment notifications. Her worst fears confirmed, she’s bussed off to a Designated Area (DA) for the unemployed. A gang fight is underway when the bus stops near the abandoned warehouses of Lisse’s DA, introducing her to the street violence that proliferates in her new neighborhood. As she exits the bus, she receives a government-issued “credit card” which provides a meager allowance for food and other basic necessities.

The bus departs with Lisse’s best friend Benta still aboard, as she’s been assigned to work on her family’s farm. However, seven other school friends stand on the deserted street with Lisse. Her friend Scylla, an artist, is there, as is Brad, a carpenter and her schoolyard crush. The remaining friends include Katie, a karate master and geologist; Alden, a chemist; Karen, a historian; Trent, a brilliant troublemaker; and Paul, who has a photographic memory.

The eight teens are now comrades in captivity, restricted by the Thought Police to the confines of their DA and deprived of any meaningful occupation. When they find an empty warehouse close to a government store and a forlorn public library, they decide to make it their home. Since there are no government provisions for furniture, the group must forage for mattresses, chairs, and the like. Scylla paints on the walls.

After they get settled, boredom begins to fester. Lisse amuses herself reading pre-digital age books made of paper that she gets from the desolate library; Brad tries to repurpose an old engine for wood-working; Trent, too idle, becomes irritable and argumentative. Because violent gang activity thrives at night, the teens stay in their makeshift dwelling after sunset, but the need for diversion soon gets them out the door after dark. They stumble upon a bar where colorfully costumed patrons sit in dark corners, eerily silent. When a drunken, bird-costumed woman becomes belligerent, a clown apologetically whisks her back to a corner, blaming her outburst on “The Game.”

The teens, feeling purposeless and restless, are intrigued when they hear more whispered references to the Game. They learn that participation is by invitation only, but no one will explain what this mysterious amusement is. To their surprise, they soon find letters under their door inviting them to an address in Barton Oaks where they can join the Game.

After a short train ride, the group enters a room furnished with recliners. The Game Manager instructs them to be seated and tells them the Game is a cooperative venture in which they will hunt for clues to earn a prize. When the manager tells them to relax, Lisse suspects the Game involves hypnotism, and she does, in fact, fall into a type of trance. Lisse wakes to find herself and her friends surrounded by desert sands stretching in all directions. They hike across the sand and climb a high mesa. Lisse slips off the edge; the Game immediately ends, and they’re back in their recliners. The moment one of them is in danger, they learn, the Game ceases.

The Game seduces the teens with the freedom and adventure it affords them. They agree it doesn’t “really matter if it’s a dream or hypnosis or something else” because their experiences exploring the world of the Game are so much richer than those in their real lives. As time goes on, they receive more invitations to play. A month may pass between Game adventures, so they devote their real-world time to improving their Game-world skills. They draw maps of areas they’ve traveled, plot their next moves, and build strength for expeditions by jogging. They discover they can’t take anything into the Game, so they consult library books to learn to fashion tools from raw materials.

As a team, they cultivate the skills they need to survive in the Game world, which is by turns blooming with flowers, then dry and parching, then hostile and harboring dangerous animals. There are no human settlements. They discuss their need for more expertise in medicine and agriculture. Shortly thereafter, their friends Rich and Benta, a psychologist and farmer, respectively, arrive on their real-world doorstep, saying they’ve lost their jobs. Rich and Benta receive invitations to the Game, and then their world changes, literally.

The teens enter the Game as usual, but they wake to surprises. When they encounter danger, and the Game doesn’t end, they suspect their environment is now real. They don’t see a moon and deduce they’ve been sent to another planet. Indeed, the Game is a government operation to develop teams fit for colonizing another world for Earth’s surplus population. After befriending another group of teens, the colonizers pair off in marriage. They name their planet “Prize.” The novel ends as Lisse begins authoring it. She writes the story for her baby, the first to be born on Prize.

A central theme in Invitation to the Game is technology and its role in creating a dystopian future where human labor and worth are devalued. Paradoxically, however, technology comes to the rescue in Hughes’s story by enabling an off-world alternative for the surplus population. Thus, the novel highlights the ultimate complexity of the human-technology relationship.