Social Studies 101: Gillian Rubenstein, Space Demons (New York: Pocket Books, 1989).
This is one of the better known children’s sf writers from the 1980s, and deservedly so, as apart from the first few chapters which consist of hamfisted introduction to the characters, far too often in the form of “reverie” (where a character does a quick resume of their life in their head), it’s very well written and tense.
The basic outline: Andrew, a charming and selfish kid, gets a new computer game from his Dad. He and his friend Ben are drawn into the game which seems to be inciting them to hate. When they are actually pulled into the game, Ben reacts with horror, Andrew with exhilaration. In the rest of the book Andrew gets more and more hooked on the game, and persuades Mario, a boy he hates and who hates himself, to play with him, so that both of them can enter the game through a gun which only shoots the target of hate. Ben meanwhile is moving on, developing a friendship with new girl Elaine―whose life is rootless and restless―and John, younger brother of Mario.
The computer game is brilliantly realised, and the mechanism of entry well worked out. When the game starts winning, the space demons begin to leak into the world, and there is a very real sense of threat.
In the end, Andrew works out that the only way to defeat the game is to refuse to hate, and having tricked Ben and Elaine into the game he uses this knowledge to get all of them (including a trapped Mario) out of there. A lot of this involves saying really nice things to Mario and meaning them, in order to defeat Mario’s own self-hatred.
You can see where I’m going I imagine? I liked this book. I liked it a lot. But it’s a parable. The only purpose of the technology is to facilitate a coming of age narrative in which both Andrew and Mario are redeemed from the wicked path which they have chose to tread (one a charming manipulator, the other a violent bully) while Ben and Elaine learn how to be independent of family and friends. You can tell this parable is the purpose of the book, rather than its context, because the final chapter focusses I this, rather than on the game or a discussion of what happened with the game. The last discussion between Ben, Andrew and Elaine is precisely about the metaphors the game gave them for their behaviour.
The other ending of the book was also tricky for me: the game is destroyed but it leaves behind a sticker saying send this game back to this address and you can have the next game in the series. Apart from the disconcerting feeling that I’ve wandered into a Dianetics shop (you’ve achieved level x in your personal development, now send off for the path to level y), I also suddenly realised that we were in an intrusion fantasy. In intrusion fantasies, the key element is that the protagonists must be niave, and the situation the intrusion enters must be stable otherwise you can’t get the proper cycle of surprise, threat, fear and then the move into negotiation/defeat of the intrusion (Elaine, as well as the Space Demons, is an intrusion in this book, but she is negotiated with and absorbed, where the demons are rejected and defeated). One consequence is that if you then want to write a sequel you need to recreate the niavety, and you can do this either with new protagonists or a new threat. There is nothing that says you can’t have an sf intrusion fantasy―China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station manages very well, and most alien invasion stories are essentially intrusion fantasies. But unless they move onto the consequence of invasion, any sequel is going to get trapped into entropic repetition where you need bigger bangs to get the emotional impact. So that far from looking forward to a possible sequel, that little scene caused my heart to sink.