The Games by Ted Kosmatka
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
06 June 2012
Ted Kosmatka's debut novel The Games is reminiscent of the movie-ready science fiction thrillers Michael Crichton used to produce with such prolific efficiency, from The Andromeda Strain (1969) to Jurassic Park (1990) (which The Games most resembles). Like Crichton, Kosmatka knows his science, having studied biology in university and worked in laboratories. The fairly rigorous application of his real world knowledge provides the verisimilitude needed to suspend disbelief just enough to get away with the novel's sense of formulaic inevitability.
The Games posits a future in which the Olympic games now have a gladiatorial component, which involves countries vying for scientific supremacy by pitting their genetically engineered hybrid gladiators against each other in arena showdowns (the one rule: no human DNA). When a portentously advanced supercomputer and its genius inventor Evan are called upon to provide a genetic blueprint for the United States's latest gladiator, the result is a life form so perfect and alien it can only mean bad news. We know this, as does master geneticist Silas Williams, as does Vidonia Joao, the xenobiologist he calls in to make sense of the creature. But no one else seems to twig on to the fact that a gleaming dragon-demon with two sets of teeth and no recognizable genetic derivatives on Earth being let loose in a ridiculously unsecured arena full of people might be a bad idea. Least of all Stephen Baskov, chair of the Olympic Commission, and as one-dimensional and evil as corporate villains get.
Then again, in our current climate of victorious corporate villainy, Baskov isn't such a stretch—he's just uninteresting. His cartoonish greed in the face of even the most violently clear evidence that the gladiator should be guarded and studied instead of hastily tossed into an arena becomes merely frustrating, instead of an organic plot device. As Baskov himself observes when he sees the creature in its infancy: "This perfect little life form . . . had been created by an organized composite of wires, chips, and screens. Somehow, all this beauty, all this perfection, had come from a machine" (p. 33). That the only reaction this immaculate computerized conception can elicit in Baskov is the urge to get it to fight to the death for money boggles the imagination. That nobody else objects to this in any significant way boggles it further.
What's missing here is a sense of wonder (something Crichton managed to convey well in Jurassic Park, despite using his wondrous dinosaurs to gut people left and right). The miraculous creature should be making the front page, but it's so rapidly fast-tracked to fulfil its role as a monster in a thriller that the philosophical and scientific implications of its genesis barely get any time to sink in. We get acknowledgements—mainly from Silas and Vidonia—of how amazing this animal is, how improbable, how it's "like some fairy-tale monster come to life" (p. 118). But the monumental nature of what's going on here is diluted by the banality of what this new life form is for, and by the tired assurance that everyone will pay for that banality.
Despite being helpless to stop the machinery of the novel's monster-thriller narrative from powering through logic, Silas and Vidonia are intelligent characters, strong and likeable when called to be. But they don't intrigue. Their internal conflicts are too telegraphed, the path they take too well worn by other good looking heroes in thrillers. To Kosmatka's credit, the final act does force some of their limitations as civilian scientists (as opposed to action heroes) into the open, but not to the extent that I'd like to have seen. The lack of appealing physicality and presence of ambiguous morality is instead bestowed upon the unfortunately underdeveloped character of Evan. Evan's relationship with his "Brannin" supercomputer borders on fascinating, and fuels much of the plot. But he's such an unmodified cliche—the tortured, socially crippled, and overweight genius bullied and exploited by his fellow humans into a sociopathic corner—that there's little genuine pathos in his preordained fall and dysfunctional (and reciprocated; a nice touch) devotion to the supercomputer.
The narrative is also littered with contrivances, including the token romance (which does attain some emotional weight by the end, but not enough), a protest that feels shoehorned into the final act to add climactic tension and topicality, and the enduring stupidity and lack of responsibility shown by everyone involved in the Olympic event. I suppose a certain brand of monster fiction calls for its audience to abuse its characters through the fourth wall as they blunder their way into certain death, but Kosmatka’s writing is smart enough that it deserves better than that.
The convincing realism of the novel's near future US is constantly at odds with its more unbelievable elements. For example, Kosmatka never adequately explores the cultural factors that would lead to the distractingly implausible establishment of an Olympic bloodsport that slaughters genetically unique animals for profit. It makes one wonder how every one of these Olympic events doesn't have protestors flooding the arena gates, instead of just this one. These concessions undercut the novel's attempts to explore big ideas like scientific and corporate ethics, the effects of technology on evolution, and the entropic illogic of the human condition (again, shades of Jurassic Park and its preoccupation with chaos theory). For all its nods towards the literature of ideas that science fiction can be, the novel succeeds best as straightforward, thrilling monster fiction.
The monster itself is Kosmatka's most effective creation, a lethal avatar of death delivered to humanity by a god-like computer that behaves like the spawn of Roy Batty and GlaDOS (Kosmatka writes for Valve, which developed the Portal games, so it's difficult not to make the latter connection). The reveals of the creature's intelligence and true purpose are built up well. It's hard not to experience a frisson of excitement when the gladiator begins to do things that hint at the terrifying truth of its capabilities. While the beast bears a presumably unintentional resemblance to Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Kosmatka imparts enough chilling menace and intelligence to the thing to alleviate comparisons. More so, he gives the monster enough presence to not be entirely swept away by its myriad iconic antecedents in fiction, from Crichton's velociraptors to cinema's predators and xenomorphs—not to mention the original science project gone lethal, the reanimated "daemon" of Shelley's Frankenstein. This is necessary, since the creature begins to carry an apocalyptic, biblical weight (like Frankenstein's monster, who compares himself to Lucifer) in the final stretch of the novel, when things take take a surprisingly dark turn—even for a monster-creates-havoc story.
Ultimately, The Games is the literary equivalent of a slightly above average, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster—slick, streamlined, and safely familiar. It's thoroughly predictable (barring a few startling turns in the final act), but also wisely paced, entertaining and graced with solid craftsmanship. Kosmatka's prose is precise and smooth, his grasp of action and scenario uncanny in its ability to unspool his personal movie in your head. There's a cinematic dynamism to Kosmatka's scene-setting and rapid-fire escalation of tension and chaos that is undeniable even in the face of his novel's flaws. I wouldn't be surprised if the rights for a film adaptation are nabbed in no time. The Games is a quick, entertaining read that will need you to switch off parts of your brain even as it lights up others.