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The near future: Welcome to BetterLife – the game show to beat all game shows. Where the prize is out of this world, but the risks are even greater…
James Lovegrove’s new novel is a standalone, although fans of his Pantheon series will see a lot of the same thought processes behind the book – he’s taken a situation and extrapolated it to its logical conclusion, and then gone just that bit further. Our current obsession with game shows such as Big Brother/I’m a Celebrity or even quiz shows like Eggheads and Pointless is skewered here, with the titular game BetterLife offering the seven randomly chosen contestants the chance to earn a fortune, if they can win the games of pure chance. Well, I say “games”… if you call sadistic tortures games, then they’re games… The contestants here wouldn’t be covered in bugs that had been defanged; on BetterLife, the poisons would be present and correct – and you’d just have to hope that the medics on call really could cope with any situation.
Lovegrove isn’t the first to do this – the penultimate Christopher Eccleston episode of Doctor Who a decade ago was predicated on much the same idea, although (not really a spoiler) it’s not the Daleks responsible in this version, and of course The Hunger Games and its many imitators tackle some of the same themes – but there’s something very British about his story. The “randomly” chosen people come from a variety of backgrounds which show off how Britain has become in the contemporary society of the novel – from the council-estate benefits-dependent chav to the Duke who’s not what he seems, the stalwart of the WI to the former tabloid editor whose faking of a story led him to become a TV personality (hmmm… sounds familiar), the immigrant sweeping the hospital floors who knows far more about medicine than any around him ever will to Luke, the bookie’s assistant, who’s our point of view character for much of the time.
Luke is one of twins, and the story alternates between his tale as a contestant with that of his brother, Johnny: all their lives, their lucks seems to have been on a see-saw. The higher Luke rises, the lower Johnny falls… Lovegrove uses this as the basis for a discussion of luck’s existence. Are some people naturally lucky – does Dame Fortuna smile on them? – or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? I’m not sure by the end that you’re able to say which side of the argument the author himself falls.
There are some gory moments, particularly in the descriptions of the games past and present; some excellently presented fight sequences (there’s a martial art technique in here which may not exist – but it should!); and credible characterisation of two people from different backgrounds being drawn together. The only negative is a rather adolescent attitude to sex, which sits uncomfortably alongside some of the polemics which Lovegrove gives his characters.
The door is open for a sequel, and I certainly would love to learn what happens next to those who have survived, both inside and outside BetterLife.
Verdict: A satirical skewering of the voyeuristic mentality that prepares and watches game shows. Recommended. 9/10