Survival Game: Played out across multiple universes

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Survival Game by Gary Gibson speculative fiction book reviewsSurvival Game by Gary Gibson

Humankind has a weird fascination with its own demise. It’s the reason apocalyptic fiction has been a staple for decades. You’ve read zombie apocalypse, imminent meteor, killer virus stories a million times, so the real challenge now is finding an interesting way to explore said demise. Gary Gibson‘s take on the genre is surprisingly refreshing in the second instalment of his APOCALYPSE DUOLOGY series, The Survival Game.

We first meet Katya Orlova as she is jumping off a train. She is a scientist working for the Russian Empire, but due to her knowledge of alternate worlds, she has been blackmailed into obtaining an item that will grant the Tsar new life. This item is the Hypersphere: an artefact which allows the user to move between alternate universes. The catch? The Hypersphere is not only being sought after by a host of other unsavoury characters, it also has the potential to destroy the universe as Katya knows it.

Katya must travel to an alternate earth where the Hypersphere is hidden, but it is on an American-controlled island. What’s more, she has to contend with Borodin, the Tsar’s spymaster. Working alongside American survivalist, Jerry Beche, Katya must use her knowledge of the device to save the myriad of connected worlds.

It’s fair to say that the eighties are having a bit of a revival at the moment. With television shows like Stranger Things and an upcoming film adaptation of Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One, Gibson is right on the money with his portrayal of the uneasy relationship between Russia and America, giving the book a distinctly old-school flavour. Gibson himself has said that he was looking to hark back to the eighties, in which the Soviet Union was obviously a huge influence on SF. But Survival Game isn’t reductive in its portrayal of the superpowers. American does not just equal good, nor Russia bad. What we have in this story are three super powers, as Gibson has, in fact, included a second imperial Russia in an alternate universe. Ultimately, each of the three major powers is only trying to ensure their own survival, so questions of “good” and “bad” are not so clearly delineated.

Gibson’s take on two thoroughly familiar tropes (Cold War + apocalypse) is actually quite refreshing. Historical references prevail throughout the story and you get the feeling Gibson has really done his research here. It adds an element of authenticity to the work, and makes his world-building highly convincing. The prose is also satisfyingly good. Too many times have we seen writing suffer at the expense of big action-filled set pieces in these types of stories, but Gibson manages to maintain a zippy and compelling pace whilst not sacrificing his writing.

Whilst The Survival Game is billed as the second instalment of a duology, it actually works pretty well as a stand-alone, too. Readers will no doubt be more satisfied having read its prequel, The Extinction Game, but the world-building is rich enough and the characters compelling enough to jump right in here.

Published November 1, 2016. Katya is a scientist, working on a top secret project for the Russian Empire. Due to her classified knowledge of alternative worlds, she’s being blackmailed into working as a spy—and her father’s life is at stake. She must hunt down a mysterious artifact that could give the dying Tzar his dearest wish—new life. But it’s hidden on an alternate Earth, on an American-controlled island. She’ll have to go deep undercover to gain access. However, if they use the artifact, the Russian Empire, the Americans’ beleaguered territories, and all linked versions of earth face extinction. Katya discovers the truth with Jerry, an American survivalist based on the island. Together they must stop the artifact being activated, at any costs.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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