Though today Headspace might immediately remind everyone of The Hunger Games (2008-10), J.D. Edwin has listed video games and movies including Mortal Kombat (1992) and Battle Royale (2000) as influences. The plot is simple: a few hundred people are selected to compete in extreme sports—so extreme that most of them die early in the games.
The games reflect our own current concerns with equality of opportunity. Players seem to be randomly chosen; physical ability is irrelevant. Donna Astra Ching, the protagonist, is an ordinary young woman, if well-heeled: upper middle class, degreed, employed, single. In her mundane pre-game life she was smart but not a genius, good-hearted but not a saint, brave but not a hero. The game’s arena gives her superpowers. She wins the survival games by stumbling upon the secret, rather than logically working it out by analysis (or being told), that the only way anybody wins/survives a game is by vividly imagining whatever tools or traits make survival possible. She manifests diamond-hard spikes for protection. The paparazzi start to call her Diamond Donna, a name she hates. (Friends call her Astra.)
Early in the games, competitors make friends and form alliances. Astra finds a mentor first, Lexi Monroe, a tough, Black British veteran with stylish, colorful hearing aids. Next she gets to help a younger girl, Evie, who has major disabilities in ordinary life but is a strong game player. In the game players’ compound, their new neighbor is Crish Michaels, teen heartthrob (“Crish” as in the “crush” Astra used to have on him). They might become friends, if the games weren’t set up so that, before the end, they’ll have to compete directly against each other.
The first-person narrative tips us off that Astra’s going to win, but will she really kill Evie, the baby sister she never had? Will she fall in love, in a grown-up way, with Crish—or with a lizardy-but-humanoid alien game assistant called Eleven? Read to find out. Since Master of the Arena—conceived and written as the second in a trilogy—is in fact a prequel that leads up to Headspace, it can be discussed without disclosing the end of Astra’s story.
In Headspace we learn that the orb that generates the arena visits many parallel worlds, all with humanoid populations. Winners, who become apparently immortal, are alienated from their worlds by their horrible experiences in the games. Most of them become game staff, though not all keep their original shapes. They call one another by numbers indicating their place in the annals of the game: the sadistic Master of the Arena is Seven; her friendly assistant is Eleven. Astra is Thirty-three.
Master of the Arena explains some of the weirdness of Headspace—in terms of their shared fictive universe, anyway. Seven is bitter and sadistic because she was dragged into the game as the teenaged mother of a baby, whom she lost forever by winning the game. The chance to hold her baby again turns out to be available only in a recording of her last day before the game, which she can replay as often as she likes; her real life, in her world, is over. In Seven’s part of the universe, her birthmark still identifies her as one of a slave caste. From the orb’s data bank, she learns that in other countries of her world the hereditary birthmark was considered an attractive feature for free, even rich, people to flaunt. Seven thus chooses contestants and, to some extent, winners in the games with the memory of her own loss forever in her mind.
The story of Seven’s life in the orb has its own plot twists. The various champions of the game, too, have their own kinds of friendship and rivalry. An alien creature that appeared in Headspace is explained as a very sensitive princess, whose imagination made her a strong contestant, but whose ethics and sense of empathy made it hard for her to survive in humanoid form—and so the orb transforms her into a sort of monkey, Seven’s pet.
What we learn about the fictive universe of these novels is that the game staff are captives of apparently disembodied intelligences, whom Seven calls “the gods”; her psychic debriefings with them are “worship” at a “temple.” “The gods” are interested in the sensations and emotions of embodied life forms, and demand that the winners of the game continue to capture and torture more victims from whose thoughts they can absorb more secondhand feelings. There’s no end to this in sight. The winners, having had most of their feelings wrung out of them as the game ground them down to something close to pure willpower, are doomed to keep prowling through their universe, feeding the feelings of fresh victims to these greedy and ungenerous “gods.”
Neither Astra nor Seven is religious, so they never mention any thought of a capital-G Supreme Being, or Pantheon, who might transcend even the “gods” of the orb. Eleven’s homeworld, we learn, was generally religious—although its religious tenets included not talking about the faith. Exactly how much his faith has to do with his kindness may never be known. The first two books of the trilogy, at least, are not religious literature. It would be possible for this trilogy to end with the characters healing through faith in a loving God or being knocked into line, or destroyed, by a blast from an avenging God—but I don’t anticipate that. At the time of writing I’ve seen only the title of volume three (Orb Hunter), but volumes one and two lead me to expect that the various humanoids in the orbs will have to work out their own ending for themselves, without help from a deus ex machina.
Perhaps this all feels somewhat bleak so far. But, as stories about how characters develop under extreme pressure, Headspace and Master of the Arena contain lots of feel-good notes. One feature of Headspace, for example, satisfied a long felt wish of mine: its multiethnic cast of characters. Readers of speculative fiction have for some time been noting that in too many novels either everyone is—or is assumed to be—British or Anglo-American, or (thinking again of The Hunger Games) characters expressing other identities get walk-on parts and may be sacrificed so the Anglo protagonist can win. Here, though, Astra is Chinese-American; we’re told that she only “prefers” English to Mandarin.
Then there’s the recurrent motif of forgiving love—at least for Astra—and its conspicuous absence for Seven. When Seven leaves her home world, there’s no elaborate simulation of blessing and pardoning everyone. When Astra leaves, she seems to have had a chance to "awaken" and be reconciled with everyone she ever knew. Is this a cause or an effect of the differences among Astra—who fights to save her world; Eleven—who works to rebuild his; and Seven—who does not dispute the charge that she wants to torture hers? Readers might want to believe that forgiving love can be bestowed by one person, that it’s Seven’s unwillingness to forgive, independent of Dorma’s unwillingness to repent, that makes her a less lovable character than Astra. Yet Seven is a mother, can be loyal and protective, and forgives the people she befriends for quite a lot. In her own bitter way, she’s defined by love as much as Astra is. By the end of Master of the Arena we know that two very strong and very feminine characters are bound for some sort of showdown in a forthcoming conclusion (Orb Hunters), but we’re left in suspense as to how that will play out.
There’s also a sensuous quality in Edwin’s storytelling that’s often missing from science fiction. Space opera has never liked to dwell on the fact that space travel hurts; astronauts are selected and trained for toughness to improve their survival rate. Space-based science fiction stories can read like something the reader is watching on a screen—which is, after all, how some of them have been written. Their range of sight and hearing is limited; taste, smell, and touch don’t exist. We may be told that characters feasted or mated or rested, but we’re not shown it or convinced. The worst are the stories about blowing up enemies, which may be done via computer screen. Good science fiction, on the other hand, has always been more embodied than the cheap stuff. Perelandra (1943) may be more moral parable than science fiction, but it builds a three-dimensional world; Asimov’s and LeGuin’s and even George Lucas’s characters are three-dimensional, or at least engaging, people (or aliens or robots). Similarly, there are some walk-on and cameo roles in Headspace and Master of the Arena, but most of our attention is drawn to a small core of vividly embodied characters. Humanoid aliens, in Edwin’s imagination, are human too. Though they spend more time struggling and suffering than anything else, it’s partly their suffering that makes them so keenly aware of occasional or remembered pleasures: eating oranges, touching loved ones, working out.
Despite these feel-good moments, however, the picture Edwin has painted so far remains a bleak one. The aliens called “gods”—certainly the most powerful character (collectively) in these books—feed on humanoid suffering. Though there’s no reason to trust their word, they claim to have created the characters, and their worlds, for the express purpose of torturing them and feasting on their pain. They can rebuild the people the Headspace Games have destroyed, or the planets, reconstructing their physical forms from their stored and harvested memories. Usually, they don’t bother. They don’t even directly enjoy the grief of the people to whom they broadcast the gruesome deaths of their parents, children, siblings, mates, and best friends. If there is any appeal to a higher power against these "gods," or any escape from them, in these two volumes, we’re not told what it might be. The point of all humanoid existence, on a long list of planets, is to entertain sadistic aliens.
Well, it’s a point of view. It’s also close to the point of view advocated in much of what seems to be offered as comforting advice in the real world: trying to feel good about all the bad things that happen, rather than changing situations or redressing wrongs, would be a useful survival strategy in a world run by a sadistic higher power.
I hope, for Edwin’s sake and her readers’, that nobody is taking this worldview seriously.