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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Games - Ted Kotsmaka

As a widely published short fiction author, Ted Kosmatka's first novel The Games is hardly a debut. Since 2008, Kosmatka has seen eight stories reprinted in Years Best anthologies and received multiple award nominations, most prominently the Nebula for his story Divining Light. He's also a writer for Valve, creators of the massively successful Half-Life video games. With that in mind, I was looking forward to the The Games being a polished, layered, science fictional novel. What I got was a polished, straightforward, near term technothriller that calls to mind a taciturn Michael Crichton.

Set sometime in the near future, the games in The Games refers to the Olympics where the main event has evolved into a gladiator like competition with only one rule: no human DNA permitted in the design of the combatants. Silas Williams is the geneticist in charge of preparing the U.S. entry whose designs have led them to the gold in every previous event. Looking for an edge in the upcoming Games, Silas’s boss engages an experimental supercomputer to design the genetic code for a gladiator that cannot be beaten.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the guy who invented the supercomputer, Evan Chandler, is batshit crazy and he's got more to accomplish that creating a genome never before seen on earth. Aided by the beautiful (aren't they all?) xenobiologist, Vidonia João, Silas must find a way to understand what he created and how to keep it from ruining everything he's built.

Before I go any farther I think I should disclose the fact that I wanted a lot more gladiator action. When a book is sold as containing genetically engineered gladiatorial combat, I'm looking for Jean Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport with chitinous armored sentient chimeras. Or maybe rabid vorpal bunnies. While The Games delivers on the crazy genetically engineered monster factor, very little of the novel actually takes place in the arena. Kosmatka instead focuses on the overworked 'you-can't-put-technology-back-in-the-box' angle.

As far as those kinds of stories go, The Games is a success. It's fast paced, full of tension, and just the right amount of blood and guts to sustain things. There's a little romance and the whole thing is a tragic story of technology run amok. Except, replace the Olympic setting with a remote island and the genetically engineered gladiator with a velociraptor or two and the end result looks an awful lot like Jurassic Park with a (very) slightly altered cast of characters. That's just not going to do it for me.

The characters themselves are likeable enough. Silas is a bit miscast as a once in a lifetime genius geneticist, but that's part of his charm. He's smart and athletic, loves to hunt with his bow and arrow, and no one can seem to get over how big he is. Everything about his character to me screams big time executive, not genius level scientist. Nevertheless, he comes across as incredibly conflicted about what he does and why he does it. The other motive character, Evan Chandler, is even more interesting. A functional (barely) autistic (maybe?), he struggles to interact with the real world, choosing instead to live within the virtual confines of his super computer. Outside them, the cast is archetypal and bland. The major villain, Mr. Baskov (the Olympic Commissioner) and the love interest, Vidonia João, fit into tidy boxes that eschew any sort of eye opening moments.

Considering Kosmatka's exceptional short fiction and his work experience in research labs, it comes as no surprise that the novel is well written and authentic seeming in its science. He presents the latter in a clear way that allows for suspension of disbelief without becoming Tom Clancy didactic. The tension is well structured and peaks at the right times. What I'm getting at is that this is perfectly good novel. It's just a novel I feel like I've read a half a dozen times.

Ted Kosmatka's first novel, The Games is a paint by numbers technothriller separated from its peers only by its level of polish and the interest ignited by the Olympic backdrop. For readers who rabidly seek out this kind of yarn, I suspect they'll find a great deal of enjoyment. For me, I kept waiting to be engaged at a deeper level, or caught off guard by a twist, or sucked into some bad ass monster fighting. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting.

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2 Comments:

At March 27, 2012 at 6:05 AM , Blogger RobB said...

A fair and balanced review, Justin. You may have pushed me to one side of the fence on whether or not to read the book.

 
At March 27, 2012 at 7:06 AM , Anonymous Jared said...

"I'm looking for Jean Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport with chitinous armored sentient chimeras. Or maybe rabid vorpal bunnies."

I enjoyed this review more than I will the actual Olympics.

 

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