Artificial intelligence has become one of the most common staples in science-fiction, the embodiment of human concerns with being replaced. Our collective worry about creating machines smarter and stronger than us crystallized into its own genre. Artificial intelligence, or A.I., is all over fiction, yet very difficult to get just right. For every successful A.I. story, there are piles of unsuccessful ones. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell all come to mind as stories about A.I. done right. Unfortunately, The God Game by Danny Tobey never quite reaches the heights its predecessors achieved.
The basic premise of The God Game is that an artificial intelligence has arisen in the modern day. However, as Tobey attempts to make the story more realistic, he draws on real-world A.I. rather than fictional ones. Reading this book will remind readers of recent machine learning experiments, such as an A.I. unleashed on twitter becoming racist almost immediately after scouring the internet. Or feeding scripts and stories to an A.I. to see what kind of fiction it can write. Inevitably, these experiments only served to highlight how much further true A.I. is. The God Game imagines that one of these machine learning programs was fed religious and philosophical texts, believing itself to be God. Along with this, its access to the internet has twisted its perception into a cruel version of the God of the Old Testament, only trying to torture and kill its followers. To that end, this A.I. creates the god game, an augmented reality game where playing can affect the real world.
The God Game follows a group of friends and high school students known as the Vindicators to the people around them. Outcasts, musicians, hackers, engineers, this group of friends come together despite different backgrounds due to feelings of displacement. None of them truly belong anywhere. Charlie, the leader, has fallen grieving for his mother and fighting with father. Peter, his best friend, is a spoiled and unsupervised rich kid dealing drugs for fun. Alex is a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his father dealing with increasingly severe mental illness. Kenny comes from a wealthy black family pushing him to be better than anyone else. Vanhi is the girl of the group, pushing against the expectations of her family, and a genius attempting to finish her Harvard application. Aside from the main cast, there are an assortment of supporting and antagonistic characters. But no one quite rises past the archetype or stereotype assigned to them. Each character is endlessly predictable, except when they act outside their character.
There is a reason why most stories involving artificial intelligence place themselves in the future, even if it’s a vaguely defined some time in the future. After real-world experiments involving A.I. and machine learning, it is clear that modern technology is nowhere near advanced enough to create true intelligence. And yet, The God Game insists on unnecessarily dating itself to early 2016. There are explicit references to Donald Trump’s presidential bid and the rise in racism and nationalism he inspired. Aside from this misguided attempt to comment on modern-day politics, which falls flat, that means that the book is positing an artificial intelligence could be created with our technology. More than that, the book makes it clear this A.I. has been around for some time. Without anyone outside of black hat hackers and players of the god game ever noticing. Somehow, this A.I. is so expansive that no one has ever noticed. It is also apparently capable of controlling closed systems which, realistically, have no online connection, such as a public school’s boiler room. Readers are expected to suspend their disbelief long enough to buy that this A.I. is also capable blackmailing and coercing every single person to do its bidding. This suspension is not sustainable.
Many novels, television shows, and movies suffer from pacing issues. They can either be too slow, too fast, or ricochet back and forth between the two extremes chapter to chapter. The God Game is no exception. This is a novel where 150 pages could have been cut without impacting the plot or character development too severely. Things happen without much rhyme or reason, and characters act out of character in the interest of postponing plot developments. There are endless scenes of main characters submitting to blackmail, being coerced, being abused, many of which serve no purpose other than to repeatedly demonstrate how desperate and awful humans can be. Game of Thrones suffered a similar problem with Ramsay Bolton during its tenure on TV. We only need to see so much for the point to get across. Anything more is needlessly gratuitous.
Two of the most difficult parts of writing a novel are composing the beginning and the ending. The opening of the novel has to have just enough to hook the audience, but not enough that the reader knows exactly what is going to happen. They need to understand the tone the author is attempting, and be sufficiently intrigued to turn the page. The God Game, without a doubt, has an excellent opening. The ending of the novel has to leave the reader satisfied with their choice in reading your book. It has to encapsulate the journey they have taken with your characters and allow the reader to let out a sigh of contentment when the cover closes. This does not mean every ending needs to be happy, only satisfying. Unequivocally, The God Game does not have a good ending. Rather, the ending is completely undermined by the final three pages of the novel, three pages which should have been cut prior to publication. This ending is not satisfying and undercuts the main characters’ journeys during the course of the stories. It is rare that an ending soils the whole, but Tobey manages to accomplish this.
I am sad to say that The God Game is not a good book. As a lover of science-fiction, and someone who truly is fascinated by artificial intelligence, Tobey’s novel proved a disappointment. Needlessly dated, containing flat characters and unnecessary scenes, with an ending that serves to undermine nearly the entire story. I hesitated in writing this review at all, but I am committed to writing about each and every novel read. Especially during this time, where the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay home, there are better things to read than Danny Tobey’s The God Game.
The God Game can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 16 days
Next on the List: Highfire by Eoin Colfer