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I read a children’s science fiction novel as a child, probably about ten or fifteen years ago (that is, in the 2000s), that I have never been able to pinpoint. No, the novel is not Ender’s Game, though it may sound like the obvious candidate from the question title alone.
I’m pretty certain the novel included the following elements:
The novel was a serious, dramatic science-fiction novel set in the distant future. However, it did seem to be explicitly a novel written for children or teens: it focused on two children primarily and adults were always tertiary characters.
The core plot was about children with especially potent (but not supernatural) mental abilities who are trained as soldiers to essentially play real-time strategy games, which are now the way superpowers settle conflicts.
- These games, like modern real-time strategy games, involve commanding a set of units on a game board, but these games are different in the sense that they are played extremely quickly, with decisions needing to be made and orders needing to be given with fraction-of-a-second accuracy.
The primary war in the novel is over a piece of unoccupied, unpolluted land. This is significant because the population has been squeezed into very small spaces, and land is extremely valuable. I forget if this is because the population has expanded to cover the whole planet, or if much of it is too polluted or irradiated to be habitable, but I remember the land being fought over being especially clean.
The protagonist is a boy with a superhuman, intuitive ability to discern measures and make fine movements: he has a perfect sense of time, down to microseconds, and he has motor control at the precision of microns. The word “microns” was definitely used explicitly, not “micrometers”.
A secondary character is a girl, who has some distinct superhuman ability of her own, but I don’t remember what it is.
The two main characters are viewed as extremely important assets by the military, so they are kept confined to small, sterile rooms at all times, and they interact with each other and with others via some form of virtual reality.
The novel opens with the boy playing some kind of virtual reality game with the girl (which I remember being something like tennis), which doubled as some kind of training.
Almost all food in the novel’s universe is derived from soy products, and real meat is essentially unheard of.
- At one point, the two main characters sneak out of their containment into the “real world” and somehow end up eating real meat (steak, I believe).
If the war is won, the boy is promised that he will be able to live in the clean land he is fighting for, and indeed, the novel ends with him doing so (and I think deciding to live a simple life of farming, or something).
The girl, on the other hand, asked for something else, which I believe was something like access to candy (I know, it seems silly, but it’s what I remember!), which is an extremely rare commodity in this universe.
- The boy is surprised to learn that the girl has chosen this reward, and he only learns it at the very end of the novel, after the war is over. He had assumed up until that point that all of the child soldiers were offered the same deal that he was.
As mentioned above, at one point in the novel, the two main characters escape their confinement, as orchestrated by the girl (who has snuck out before; it’s the boy’s first time). I seem to remember him finding that the outside world is much dirtier, poorer, and generally more dystopian than he was aware from his sheltered experience.
Much of the plot is fuzzy to me, but one plot point I remember clearly is a scene in which the boy tells his superior that a particular training session went overtime by some tiny number of fractions of a second. The superior notes that it did, but reprimands the boy, since a previous session went even further overtime, but he had not noticed. This is a big deal, since it is crucial that the boy be able to recognize such things immediately. It is implied he is stressed or distracted by something, but I cannot remember precisely what.
I remember little else, but those details are, I think, fairly clear. I have no memory of what the book’s cover looked like, nor do I have any firm idea when it was written, but it seemed unlikely to be brand new—maybe something from the 80s, if I had to take a wild guess (but it could have easily been older).