Author: Ted Kosmatka
Genre: Horror/Thriller, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: March 2012
Hardcover: 368 Pages
This stunning first novel from Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist Ted Kosmatka is a riveting tale of science cut loose from ethics. Set in an amoral future where genetically engineered monstrosities fight each other to the death in an Olympic event, The Games envisions a harrowing world that may arrive sooner than you think.
Silas Williams is the brilliant geneticist in charge of preparing the U.S. entry into the Olympic Gladiator competition, an internationally sanctioned bloodsport with only one rule: no human DNA is permitted in the design of the entrants. Silas lives and breathes genetics; his designs have led the United States to the gold in every previous event. But the other countries are catching up. Now, desperate 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.
The result is a highly specialized killing machine, its genome never before seen on earth. Not even Silas, with all his genius and experience, can understand the horror he had a hand in making. And no one, he fears, can anticipate the consequences of entrusting the act of creation to a computer’s cold logic.
Now Silas races to understand what the computer has wrought, aided by a beautiful xenobiologist, Vidonia João. Yet as the fast-growing gladiator demonstrates preternatural strength, speed, and—most disquietingly—intelligence, Silas and Vidonia find their scientific curiosity giving way to a most unexpected emotion: sheer terror.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel (though there is room for more, ostensibly)
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I was in a reading rut (seriously, I picked up at least 3 books and put them down as DNFs!) and desperately needed something to break me out of my malaise. I was scrolling through my virtual TBR, and found this title – which I had bought back in March – and given that it is about: 1. The Olympics (in year 2044), and 2. A gladiatorial fight to the death, I finally found something I could get excited about.
It was a science competition, Silas reminded himself. Not some competitive athletic event. It was surreal- a science competition that hundreds of millions of people would watch. There was only a single rule: no human DNA. All else was wide open. The most profound endeavors have the fewest rules: love, war. The event was many things. Some good, some barbaric. But among them, this: it was the greatest show on the planet.
Silas Williams has won his country three gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games – though his medals were earned not from any display of athletic skill. Silas is the world’s foremost geneticist, and the head of Helix, the US Olympic Committee’s American effort; his designs have been the best in the world three times over. But for the upcoming Olympic Games in 2044, Silas’s designs have been vetoed by Stephen Baskov, the staunch-fisted ruler of the American Olympic politico. Instead of going with Silas and his vision, the new Gladiator design is coming from maladapted genius Evan Chandler’s brilliant supercomputer; a design and genome that no one understands – not Silas, not Baskov, not even Chandler. And the Gladiator is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before; terrifying, powerful, and utterly, incomprehensibly alien.
As Silas struggles to understand the new creation before the advent of the games, a gradual horror dawns on him, and all those who work at Helix. The Gladiator – Evan Chandler’s artificial intelligence brainchild – is humanity’s reckoning. It means the end of not only games, but of everything, unless Silas and his team can figure out its purpose and how to stop it.
As I mentioned before, I was in a bit of a rut before starting The Games – but whoo-boy, this was a perfect way to break out of that reader apathy. Ted Kosmatka’s debut novel, billed as a hybrid of Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games absolutely delivered.1 Crichton-esque in style and substance, with a twist of fight-to-the-death awesomeness set against an Olympic backdrop, The Games is total, unyielding SF-thriller fun.
The novel’s greatest strength lies with its conceptualization – the mystery behind the American Gladiator, its complex and unreadable genome, and its ultimate purpose are wonderfully executed. While the characterizations and tropes used are familiar, the underlying mystery behind the thriller is blissfully unpredictable (at least, it was for me!). I won’t spoil the purpose of the Gladiator, or what it means for the world, but it’s a hell of a creation. I also loved the conceit of this near-future world with a separate Olympic Games dedicated to violent, to-the-death showdowns between different countries’ genetic monsters. While this might seem like a stretch for 2044, the idea of a gladiatorial games instituted in a government-sanctioned arena doesn’t actually seem too far off.
From a pure storytelling perspective, The Games is a well-executed thriller that mostly manages to walk the line between concept and action. My only complaint with regard to pacing is how long it actually takes to get to the Olympic Arena – and how quickly, subsequently, that action is over. There is a LOT of exposition in this book, and much posturing done by various scientists as they try to figure out just what the American Gladiator is, and how it came to be. There’s also a lot of back and forth with Evan Chandler and his relationship with his intelligent, virtual-reality based, supercomputer creation (which assumes an Avatar nicknamed “Pea” and is treated as Evan’s son). The VR aspect also feels a little 1995, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there’s something comforting and nostalgic with this dated look at technology, and it works to The Games‘ credit.
Of course, there’s also plenty of familiar ground covered in this novel. The Games recycles any number of thriller tropes – there’s the brilliant, slightly conflicted but ultimately good-hearted hero, his beautiful and almost equally as brilliant specialist female counterpart, and apocalyptic stakes. That said, there’s more to the book than a melange of familiar elements. When The Games deviates from the mold – namely, in its self contained nature, its bleak conclusion, and ultimate fate of its heroes – this is where the novel truly shines.
Most importantly of all, The Games is fun. And, at the end of the day, isn’t this what we want from a speculative fiction, genetics-bent thriller? Utter, rapt entertainment? The Games delivers, and I will absolutely be back for more from Ted Kosmatka.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Somewhere in the blackness a videophone rang. Through force of will, Silas brought the glowing face of the clock radio into focus: 3:07 a.m. His heart beat a little faster.
Was it ever good news at 3:07 a.m.?
He fumbled for the light near his bedside, sliding his hand up to the switch, wondering who could be calling this late. Suddenly, he knew¾the lab. The light was nearly as blinding as the darkness, but by squinting he found the phone, being careful to hit the voice-only button.
“Hello,” he croaked.
“Dr. Williams?” The voice coming through the speaker was young and male. He didn’t recognize it.
“Yes,” Silas answered.
“Dr. Nelson had me call. You’ll want to come down to the compound.”
“What’s happened?” He sat up straighter in bed, swinging his feet to the carpet.
“The surrogate went into labor.”
“What? When?” It was still too soon. All the models had predicted a ten-month gestation.
“Two hours ago. The surrogate is in bad shape. They can’t delay it.”
Silas tried to clear his head, think rationally. “The medical team?”
“The surgeons are being assembled now.”
Silas ran his fingers slowly through his mop of salt and pepper curls. He checked the pile of dirty clothes lying on the floor next to his bed and snagged a shirt that looked a little less wrinkled than its brethren. Above all else, he considered himself to be an adaptable man. “How long do I have?”
“Half hour, maybe less.”
“Thanks, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Silas clicked the phone off. For better or worse, it had begun.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)
- It doesn’t hurt that The Games totally filled the gaping hole of an Olympics-less future in my life. I know you feel the same, dear readers. ↩