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“I’d surely do better than that…” and other things we tell ourselves

There is an old movie which is quite famous in Italy (I don’t know if it had any success abroad) about three people who are supposed to transport a modern piece of art. They’re told that its value is through the roof and when the protagonists see that the piece of art is just a very raw wooden leg, one of them can’t help but saying out loud “The woodworker down the street could make a better one and he only charges 30000 lire” (which is approximately 20 dollars) .

It’s become quite a common way of saying here, when we see something which is supposed to hold a high value but doesn’t live up to (our) expectations. I’m sure there are other ways to express the same concept around the world, even just saying that we ourselves could be capable of doing something better than something we expected great things from but didn’t satisfy us.

I’ve made all this introduction because that was the feeling I had as I read “Game of Mass Destruction” from Chloe Gilholy, and if you keep reading you’ll see why I think it’s very unfair of me to have such a thought, even though I can’t help it.

But let’s start from the beginning: I’ve been asked to review another book (and you’ve got no idea how much it flatters me), and of course I couldn’t say no. Especially because once again the premise was very intriguing: people participating in a twisted survival game. It’s a genre that fascinates me since I came a cross a copy of the Battle Royale movie, back when I was younger. And since I read Headspace last Summer I can’t help but be curious about how other examples fare with respect to it.

This book surely presents a set of references I was glad to spot in the story. First and foremost, Battle Royale itself. The idea of participants being brought to a desert island and being randomly assigned a weapon, and the manifest cruelty and nonsense of the whole game.

The book opens from Yuzuko’s point of view. Yuzuko is a young Japanese lady whose grandfather is quite famous as the creator of humanoid robots. Yuzuko and her girlfriend Sakura are signed up for the Games by Yuzuko’s mother, even though I had a hard time figuring out why. That didn’t prevent me from following the rest of the game, though, because there were so many other couples to follow. They came from all over the world: Netherlands, Italy, Iceland, China, South Korea, India, United Kingdom…

For some reason, many of the contestants seemed to know each other in advance, and it’s not clear how nor what were the chances to meet so many related people in a game where the contestants are supposed to be nominated and then randomly selected. There’s a lot of bonding and teamwork, but also a lot of betrayal, and the game itself is known to be a very cruel experience. Contestants are awarded points to kill robots, of course, but also for sexual activity and for killing other contestants.

The host of the game is Sia Bucks, the typical villain just for the sake of it. We get glimpses of her past and her relationship with a few of the contestants, but it’s one of those villains which in my opinion didn’t have a backstory strong enough to justify their actions. It’s something that tends to annoy me in a book, even though I have to admit that Sia Bucks has a lot of interesting aspects to her character.

The aim of the game is to slay robots and not be killed by them (for some reason the robots on that island are very mean to humans), and at first I thought it tied to the fact that Yuzuko’s grandfather is a robot manufacturer and often campaigns for the robots to be recognised the same rights are humans. In his opinion, in fact, they are inherently bad as the game pictures them. As the story progressed, though, this aspect wasn’t debated very long, and the game goes on until all the robots are killed.

Another thing that didn’t sit very well with me is the fact that the game has gone on for decades, one edition after the other, and only at the end of the current one people (both the audience and the game staff) turned against Sia. Why did they wait for so long? At the beginning of the book everybody already knows how cruel the game is, and the backlash against it that we see at the end appear a bit unexpected to me.

So yes, it was a book I didn’t enjoy as much as I was expecting to, even though the premise was good. In several occasions I found myself thinking about how I would have written certain things in the story because the path chosen by the author didn’t sit very well for me. But if you ask me, I think it’s not correct to say that I didn’t like the book.

Let me explain. The fact that I would have taken different roads in writing it doesn’t mean it would have been better. It’s Chloe Gilholy’s book, after all, and she followed through with her idea. “Just build the universe for yourself, if you think you’re able to” is another great quote from an Italian songwriter, and it’s the kind of quote I always say to myself when I feel I’m becoming too judgmental about books or movies that weren’t written as I’d written them.

But the important point I want to make is the following. There’s not a universal agreement on what makes a book better than another one, and ranking all of them according to their quality is a quite difficult task. And even for those few books that are indisputably great, well, there’s very little discussion. They’re great, full stop.

In the case of this book, instead, there is potential. A lot of it. And it doesn’t matter if the author didn’t deliver what I was expecting or wanting, because the story as it was had me thinking about it a lot more than it would have if I’d loved it. This capacity of generating a discussion not only about the theme of the book (which, if you ask me, is great), but also about the different choices made by the author and how each one of them resonates with each reader.

TLDR: a good book is also capable of having people think about it, talk about it, discuss about it. And I’m sure there’s a lot to talk about in “Game of Mass Destruction”.

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