Title: Invitation to the Game
Published: 1990
Author: Monica Hughes
Illustrator: Broeck Steadman
Genre: Science Fiction

Overview: Children's novel which intertwines a dystopian fantasy with a good-old-fashioned survival tale. Although obviously written to a younger audience, Invitation has a solid story behind it despite the sometimes forced dialog and wooden characters.

Synopsis: Sometime in the future, much of the world's labor has been replaced by heavy mechanization. Most of the youth go from college to government subsidized unemployment because of this. The book's group of protagonists fall into this position, and a good bit of the first half of the novel deals with their trying to get used to living in a urban wasteland tenement. Much of the book's geek appeal comes from the hacks they engineer to make their apartment into a fortress of sorts, complete with a biometrically controlled front gate. Their world is nightmarishly Orwellian, and when a sealed invitation to participate in a nebulous "Game" appears inside their supposedly locked-down home, they jump at the chance, and use the much-valued tokens included in the invitation to travel to the outskirts of the city.

The group is led into a dimly lit room with a large number of chairs, which they are guided into. They share a collective experience of being on an alien world, ending when they manage to ascend to the top of a plateau and view the land around them. For the next several weeks, all of the friends are unable to concentrate on anything except their experience, drawing what they saw and discussing both the metaphysical implications of the Game and potential future strategies for playing it. Eventually, another invitation comes, and they return with equipment and tools stashed in their pockets, none of which carries over into the virtual world.

The pattern of occasional visits to "play the Game" continues for most of the latter half of the book, juxtaposing the group's increasingly less important real lives against the ever more constructed world of the game. Eventually, they wake in the Game world after receiving an invitation to find that the world is harsher and seemingly more substantial, and despite sustaining injuries they do not get pulled back. The "surprise ending" (which it might be, if you haven't yet graduated from junior high school) is that the government was really sponsoring the game so as to select candidates to be transferred off-world, and the last twenty or so pages are a montage of sorts, covering the friends' finding other relocated groups and their lives on their new planet.

Analysis: Although decidedly aimed at a young audience, Invitation has an intriguing concept. The philosophical questions raised - what is reality? what criteria for judging reality can we trust? - are some of the oldest in literature, and the Blade Runner sort of world Hughes constructs is gritty enough to be cool no matter how old you are when reading it.