The set-up may seem on the face of it a little too morally schematic. Tribalism, dehumanisation and propaganda are taken, here, to a caricatural extreme. And the narrative voice is oddly fussy (“If we look for Lethe, we shall do so in a different way”; “If we go there to that moment, we can see it from every angle”) and sometimes sententious. “Do the places we inhabit confine us by their very nature?” it helpfully prompts us to wonder. “Are we always imprisoned, eternally imprisoned, in body, in place, in community, do even our minds imprison us?” But the stories are so involving and so pregnant with menace, the telling largely so fresh and the idea of the gas – be it mechanism or metaphor or both – so startling and apt that you barely register these hesitations. And where Ball’s story really bites is in the way it shows up the dynamics of almost invisibly vast disparities of power and empathy at an individual level.
The Divers’ Game is as much a critique of the past as the present. It works as a fable not only about the treatment of migrants but also about antisemitism, and about slavery and its continuing consequences. It interrogates the stories we persist in telling about what it is to be a person, and how often they contain the lie of superiority asserted as nature. Ball fictionalises this culture of dominance, and captures how it metastasises into institutions of justice and education, as well as into the gestures and choices of everyday life.