INVITATION TO THE GAME, by Monica Hughes. Simon and Schuster, 1991. $14.
The time is 2154. The 22nd century world has changed to a time of robots, heavy unemployment and tight government control. Gone are the days of public libraries, animals, freedom, a time "when there were fossil fuels."For 10 years the young people had been educated by the Government School. At commencement exercises they were told "you have completed an education that will fit you splendidly for the challenges of the 22nd century."
Most students had been taken from unemployed parents, and for many the conclusion of education also meant no occupation since work was being performed more cheaply and efficiently by robots.
This is the story of 10 young people who received a printout at graduation informing them that no jobs were available: "Welcome to the ranks of the unemployed. There is no cause for alarm. Your basic needs will be provided through the generosity of your government." They were dumped by electronic bus to a warehouse with only "enjoy your leisure years!" as encouragement.
As they moved around the DA (Designated Area in the city) scrounging living materials, they were despised by the stoic people who were employed. They met gangs and drug groups also "enjoying their leisure years."
As they became impatient and restless, they felt like rats in a maze. "Out in the open in the city I felt like that. Afraid of being out there, under the eye of whoever was in charge. And I was afraid of the gangs, too. We had never seen the nightlife of our DA, but we had certainly heard it, filtering through the barred windows . . . The sounds of raucous laughter. Sometimes screams. The blat-blat of helicopter blades and the sudden searchlight scissoring through the darkness as the thought police descended to quell a riot . . . "
There were rumors of a treasure hunt of sorts called The Game. They inquired about it and received a formal invitation. When they met the Game Master, they were "transported" to a vast area, an uninhibited desert. In this and subsequent visits to The Game, they developed physical and mental skills to combat the trials of the new territories. While they wondered if the visits are merely hypnotic trances, they always returned for another adventure.
On one visit they find a "world of infinite possibilities" and realize that it is a final journey and they would not return to Earth. "I suppose we unemployed were the real danger. The alkies, the addicts and the real criminal elements could be kept under control by the thought police. But we . . . had the capacity to shake things up, to cause trouble . . . we were both the danger to the stability of the Government and the best possible candidates for seeding a new world . . . "
Hughes is very plain about what could happen in a world that is fast losing its resources. At times she never lets us really "see" the characters that are chosen to populate the other planet when Earth can no longer tolerate the rampant waste and government control. The players in the foreign worlds move like cardboard characters without emotion and real-human feelings on a false stage. Perhaps that is her ploy to reflect the robotized society from which they came. But the opportunities for deep thought are evident.
While there are leaps in the plot that make the timeline bumpy, the many nuggets of Hughes' fine writing remind us of her "Isis" series, which stands out as some of the best science fiction for young readers available.