The Omega Game, Steven Krane [Steven Swiniarski]

DAW, 2000, 387 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-88677-907-3

Here’s a question for the avid readers in the crowd: Do you have books “that got away”? Not necessarily books that were never returned by borrowers, or books that were destroyed in various disasters, but books that you wished you had read but somehow missed your chance to buy, borrow or otherwise acquire.

For years, there was one book that got away from me. At the time where my ability to read far outstripped the money I had left after paying the mortgage, I couldn’t purchase everything I found interesting and even using the library wasn’t a surefire process. I would browse in bookstores and think really hard about the books I wanted to purchase within my budget, rejecting even some of the most intriguing ones.

That how, for years, I remembered considering a thriller in which participants were stuck on a desert island, playing a game that they scarcely understood. I couldn’t, of course, remember the title or the author. And so it seemed destined to remain, especially given the short shelf-life of paperback thrillers.

But fortune struck late this month, as a trip to a new department store revealed a selection of discount paperback novels, one of which being Steven Krane’s The Omega Game: Exactly the book that had gotten away from me so many years before.

The premise was exactly as I remembered it: Our protagonist wakes up in a hotel room, in a luxurious establishment overlooking a tropical beach. He has no memory of how he ended up in that hotel room. The hotel has twenty rooms, and every guest is in the same situation. Worse: they all discover signed copied of an agreement they can’t recall making. The agreement is a set of rules:

  1. I am a player in the Game.
  2. The players must participate in the Game
  3. The players may agree to change the rules
  4. The players must obey the rules or forfeit.
  5. The winner of the Game is the last player who has not forfeited.

And that’s it. Savvy gamers have already recognized this open-ended game as a variant on what is sometimes known as “Nomic”: games designed to test the concept of rule-making itself. But as a premise for a thriller, this is crackerjack stuff: Anything can now happen. Those who got a thrill out of the Survivor TV shows will love this book.

And Krane certainly doesn’t shy away from cranking up the tension. A few pages inside the novel, one of the twenty players is found murdered. What if “forfeiting” the game meant something more than walking away? As our protagonist tries to make sense of the situation, it also becomes obvious that some players definitely know more than others… and this information asymmetry does nothing to help the situation from slipping into barbaric hysteria.

The first hundred pages of the book live up to the premise and the years of anticipation waiting for this novel. The mystery is thick and intriguing, and if the twenty players aren’t all gracefully introduced (or even all that compelling), the narrative energy of the novel compensates for everything else.

The problems come later, when the premise of the situation must be explained and when the intricate potential of Nomic is pushed aside for more conventional thriller mechanics. It’s almost inevitable that the explanation, while satisfactory on a base level, strips away some of the intriguing possibilities suggested earlier in the novel. It also feels as if the story is lessened by an excursion far from the hotel: by breaking unity of place, Krane sets himself up for a diffused impact. Worse is the very abrupt ending, which pulls off a neat logic trick but fails to follow it up by a denouement: a number of character threads are left untied in favour of a final punchline. An epilogue certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

And yet, generally speaking, The Omega Game fulfilled my expectations, even those stoked by years of thinking the book had gotten away from me. It’s an intriguing thriller, and if it may not be the best conceivable take on Nomic, I certainly enjoyed the attempt… and wouldn’t mind seeing another one, by Krane or another.

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