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Separate but (un)equal – ‘The Divers’ Game’

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Speculative fiction has been used as a vehicle to comment on societal woes for about as long as there has been speculative fiction. In the right hands, the flexibility of genre opens up a tremendous literary toolbox, one that offers a combination of wildly vivid creations and complex cultural commentary.

Hands like Jesse Ball.

Ball’s latest novel is “The Divers' Game” (Ecco, $26.99). It’s a story of a society not so unlike our own, one extrapolated out from our current place into something darker - but not that much darker. Ball’s world is a challenging journey into the depths of man’s capability to other and the fractured functionality of a culture structured around that othering.

What elevates this work above the usual dystopian dive is Ball’s prose. His unique literary sensibility brings a bleak lyricism to the narrative, a fluidity of form. All of it devoted to creating not just the tragic segregation of this new world, but also the complicated characters that inhabit it.

In this world, the concept of inherent equality no longer exists. This world is not about fairness; instead, it is about rigidly adhering to the circumstances of our existence. There are two kinds of people – pats and quads. Only here’s the thing – in society’s eyes, there is only one kind of person.

Because quads are not people.

In the eyes of the law, quads are merely things. They may be killed by pats with impunity, for any reason. It is not a crime to kill a quad; they must simply move through the world knowing that their lives could be ended at any time. Pats are equipped with both poisonous gas and gas masks – both government-issued – that may be unleashed on quads for any reason. Quads are branded and otherwise marked to ensure that they are easily identifiable.

We move from perspective to perspective, meeting a number of residents of this world. There’s the broken-down academic who gets sweet-talked into taking two students with him on a research trip to a bleak, barren zoo. There’s the boy being harshly questioned about the disappearance of one of his friends. There’s the young girl who has received an honored position at the head of a celebratory parade that is being held for the first time in years. And on and on and on.

We spend time with pats and quads alike, getting snapshot glimpses of their world, a lived-in place that is often shown but rarely explained. The shadows cast by heavily-guarded walls loom large, laying a sinister gloom. Fear is a constant – some cause it, others suffer it, but all are impacted by it.

“The Divers’ Game” is literary speculation at its finest. This isn’t the first dystopian vision that Ball has constructed, but he’s shown that there’s far more to be mined from this vein than one could ever extract in a single work. This new novel is a perfect illustration of that, combining a descriptive deftness with a thematic confidence – Ball doesn’t feel to spell things out or saddle the reader with unnecessary exposition. The ideas and images he deems important are the ones he places front and center; he simply expects us to follow his lead.

And it is a lead well worth following.

Ball’s work is unique, infused with a thoughtful and idiosyncratic style unlike any other writer you’re likely to encounter. That voice echoes loudest in the simplest moments, capturing the irregular details that ground the narrative in a place of verisimilitude despite the esoteric nature of the setting. It’s a world that feels real. And worse, it’s a world that feels somehow plausible. Not likely, really … but plausible. That unsettling undercurrent flows just beneath the story’s surface, lending a sense of pathos and quiet desperation to every person’s journey.

What kind of morality is born of a society with no expectation of compassion? Do we care about our fellow man because we want to or because we’re supposed to? If there’s no cultural imperative to be “good” – what happens? Is the potential for goodness actually part of human nature? Or is it just another construct, one that would quickly disappear without societal pressure?

“The Divers’ Game” is the sort of work that one points to when singing the praises of speculative fiction as “serious” literature. Through his incredible craftsmanship and narrative sophistication, Jesse Ball is able to access the incredible thematic depths potentiated by these speculative tropes. Beautifully conceived, packed with emotional complexity and challenging detail, this book is another outstanding offering from a unique literary voice.

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 September 2019 05:27

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