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  • The Mind Game
  • Written by Hector MacDonald
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345482266
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The Mind Game

Written by Hector MacDonaldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hector MacDonald

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Cutting-edge science and the logic of game theory combine to form an utterly original, spellbinding novel of suspense.

"First rule of game theory: do whatever produces the optimal final outcome for you."
"I didn't know we were playing a game."
"But of course we are. . . ."

An expert in animal behavior with a brilliant analytical mind, charismatic Oxford professor James Fieldhead needs a willing subject to test a groundbreaking device that may offer the key to understanding human emotions. Encouraged by Cara, his seductive new girlfriend, Ben Ashurst agrees to participate in the study, honored to be part of the first crucial stage of life-changing research. With a luxury resort on a pristine beach in Kenya as the site of the experiment, and Cara along for the ride, it seems a perfect way to spend the winter holiday. Yet beneath the surface of a sunny paradise awaits something cold and ruthless.

As the experiment veers from abstract theory into terrifying reality, Ben finds there is no one he can confide in. Impetuous Cara is intimate one night, then distant the next, forcing Ben to wonder where her true allegiances lie.

Snared in a masterfully crafted labyrinth of cunning, in which each step can lead closer to a solution or deeper into chaos, Ben scrambles to learn why he was chosen for this project. Fieldhead's obsession with game theory suggests a possible course of action. But every time Ben thinks he has discovered the winning move, he finds another level of deception, another betrayal of his trust.

Moving from the sheltered colleges of Oxford to the magnificent landscape of Kenya, The Mind Game is full of intriguing characters and stunning plot twists. Just when you think you have mastered The Mind Game, you might just be mistaken . . . .

From the Hardcover edition.



DATE: 15 December  TIME: 7:30 am

SITUATION: Coral headland overlooking ocean

SENSORY CONTEXT: Visual: magnificent seascape, early morning sun;   Auditory: waves breaking on reef; Olfactory: fresh salt

COGNITIVE CONTEXT: Minimal cognitive activity

EMOTIONAL CONTEXT: Happiness, sense of peace, relaxation


FACIAL RESPONSE: Musculature relaxed

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: Optimistic, unconcerned, free


A Chinese guy once told me that deception is like boiling a frog. Drop it in scalding water and it will leap out immediately. But start cold and it will never notice the rising temperature. You can fool all the people all the time if you do the groundwork slowly. It just takes patience: inching the temperature up, degree by degree, until the victim is cooked.

Cara knew how to boil a frog.

The first thing I ever heard her say was just one small piece of the groundwork: “I have never stayed with the same guy for more than a week.”

How do you answer that?

“Hello,” she added, looking up as I walked through the door. A quick smile, almost colluding, crossed her face. It was a finely balanced smile, drawing warmth from chestnut eyes and raising delicate muscles around her cheekbones. None of the others seemed to notice me. Piers’ face, marked in devilish black-white patterns by the flicker of the candle, was fixed on hers. He was desperate to come up with some clever remark. But his creativity failed him and he simply said, “Challenge.”

“Aren’t you going to welcome your guest first?”

Piers flicked his head round briefly and nodded at me. Irritated at the interruption. Captivated, for sure. “Well?”


The girl leaned across the table and helped herself to two red chips from the pile in front of the host. There was a brief silence. Duncan broke it.

“You shouldn’t admit to that kind of thing. I was about to invite you to dinner, but it hardly seems worth it for a mere week.”

The girl smiled, her eyes laughing at the joke but acknowledging the serious message behind it. “Maybe I’m just waiting for the right man,” she said.

I left my bottle on the drinks trolley and filled a glass from the jug. Piers had been mixing cocktails again. In five years he wouldn’t remember a single one of his tutors, but he’d still be on first-name terms with every off-license manager in Oxford.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, aiming the apology mainly at Jenni. Leaving her alone in this company for an hour was hardly the kindest thing to do to a friend, and her face was already showing the strain. She sat two places away from Piers, holding a half-full glass and a half-empty hand of chips. I recognized the floral print dress from the last time I’d got her invited to a party. It still looked painfully cheap, even tacky in this circle of denims and pullovers. Piers was in black Versace jeans and black polo neck. When he stood up and held out a stack of chips I noticed an unusually strong smell of aftershave.

“Thirty quid. Reds are one pound each, blacks are two.”

“You’ve got to warn me earlier next time you want to fleece me. I thought we were just going to get drunk.” I tried to make it sound light-hearted.

“You’ve got to not care about thirty quid. You’re a big boy now, with a nice big student loan.”

I grinned to show I didn’t care and went to sit by Jenni. Her mouth was already set in a defensive grimace. I whispered some hollow assurance and slipped a few chips into the half-empty fist.

“Good of you to turn up, darling,” said Sal as she leaned over for a kiss. Always more friendly than the rest, I could never decide if her style was just a subtler form of mental torture. “Have you met Cara? Piers discovered her and now she’s taking us to the cleaners.”

I waved at the girl across the table, using the excuse to glance again at the curve of her upper lip, the steep slope of her nose, the long black eyelashes that never seemed to blink. She smiled back, clearly and coolly amused by my interest.

“Good. Now you have,” said Piers. “Rules are: unchallenged truth pays one to the pot, unchallenged lie takes the pot.” He pointed to the large heap of chips in a silver ashtray. “Challenger pays two for truth, gets four for lie. OK?”

“Sure.” I smiled again to prove my enthusiasm.

“Ripper. Your turn.”

Ripper drained his glass and got up. He made his statement on the way to the drinks trolley, his back turned. Interesting tactic.

“I have personally destroyed forty-eight point three thou of high-performance sports car.” Ripper often spoke like that. I glanced at the new girl. She seemed a couple of years older than the others. I was glad to see she wasn’t impressed by the boast, true or otherwise. Her eyes remained partly on her tapered hands and partly on me, as if she didn’t need to see Ripper’s eyes to know he was lying.

“Challenge,” called Charlotte. “I saw that pile of scrap before you totalled it. Can’t have been worth more than twenty.” Ripper finished pouring his drink and walked back to the table. “Twenty-six actually.” He flicked two black chips across. So he’d been going for the swollen pot. Failed tactic.

Beside me, Jenni gave a small choke. There wasn’t much I could do to extract her from the mess I’d landed her in. A fresher among finalists. A country girl among urban sharks. Easy prey. I put an arm round her shoulder. A week ago it had seemed like a good idea to introduce her to this set. She needed social roots; they were the central pillar of college life. In my haste to try and get myself accepted, I was blind to their faults. But tonight, something was different. No amount of blindness could disguise the cruel anticipation, the impatience for blood.

True or False was not just a poker game to that crowd. Winning or losing meant nothing. The essence of the game was the elaborate, grandiose manner in which the contestants could phrase their claims. And it wasn’t just about boasting. A lie could enhance status even more than a truth, so long as it was sufficiently imaginative. The very fact that the liar was staking money on his opponents’ inability to detect the lie implied it could easily be the truth. When Charlotte claimed to have slept with a Russian prince in Mexico there was real hesitation before someone called her. All were left with the distinct impression that she might have done. Jenni couldn’t begin to penetrate this looking-glass world.

“I met the Prince of Wales last summer,” she began bravely. “He came to school in June and congratulated me on being the first Oxford entrant in ten years.”

“Challenge,” drawled Alex. “He was sleeping with my mother in June. They were in Barbados.”

“It’s true,” stammered Jenni.

“Nope, that was his double you met. Been filling in for him a lot recently.”

“Don’t call me a liar!” Her nostrils were flared wide in fragile fury.

“He’s just teasing,” I said gently, lifting a couple of red chips off Alex’s pile and handing them to her.

“It’s true,” she repeated, the sense of injustice flooding her face.

It was my turn. The atmosphere was getting aggressive. I needed something new: unthreatening to Jenni but entertaining to the rest. And of course I wanted to win.

“My tutor is working on a new sensor that detects neural impulses in the brain. It can measure emotions and he’s asked me to be the guinea pig.”

Scalding water. But in this game sometimes you want the frog to leap out.

“Challenge!” yelled everyone immediately. Perfect.

“Challenge,” repeated Piers. “I’m host, so I said it first. Even your tutor’s not that crazy. Pay up.”

“True,” I said. “You pay up.”

Piers looked incredulous. “What kind of idiots do you think we are? It’s obviously bullshit.”

I shook my head.

“OK. We’ll vote. Who thinks Ben is lying?”

I laughed. “What is this? Lie detection by democracy? A jury?”

But Piers ignored me and stared at the others. I could feel Jenni’s loyalty struggling with her honesty. Around us every arm went up. Except Cara’s. I looked at her in surprise.

“You lose. I declare you a liar and claim an extra fifty per cent as penalty,” said Piers. He reached across to seize his prize.

I was six pounds poorer. Justice had lost. But Jenni was safely forgotten for another round.

She had arrived in college two months earlier and something about her had struck a chord. Perhaps it was that sense of isolation. Or perhaps the cautious uncertainty with which she watched the swaggering, hearty student committee welcome the freshers. Whatever the link, when I drove past her in the street and saw the listless pace of her steps I stopped without thinking and offered her a lift. She had been walking back to college, she said. At that speed, you’ll never get there, I said. At first she laughed with me, then suddenly she started crying. I never found out why.

Her room was no different from any other. A few photos of favourite pets by the bed. A small stereo. A line of empty folders, waiting to be filled with the wisdom of her professors. She dipped one teabag into two mugs and told me her life story. I didn’t ask for it, but then there wasn’t much to tell, so it felt like casual conversation. Life in the slow lane. A farm in Norfolk. And now? Well, of course, this is where it all took off. Now she had this incredible opportunity. And she was going to make sure she used it to the full. A first in engineering, an athletics blue, and then the world. It was that simple. Sounds ambitious, I said. Lots of hard work. Exactly, she said. And that, together with the sharp, quiet humour, is what I liked about her. Straightforward honesty. But it was an attribute that was doing her no favours in the present company.

I looked up as I heard my name. Everyone was laughing. “What?”

“And you can’t say anything,” said Piers.

“About what? I missed it.”

“He says you’re impotent,” laughed Charlotte. “And that he’s seen it for himself.”

“That’s funny?”

“Of course,” she grinned. “Absolutely.”

Through the laughter, Cara’s voice was calm. “Challenge,” she said.

“Really?” said Piers. “You know our friend so well already?”

Cara ignored the question. “I’ll double the stakes and bet, with the chemicals you’ve probably got in your bloodstream, you have a harder time getting it up than him.”

There was an amused silence. Piers raised his eyebrows and tried to look shocked. “You expect me to admit that?”

“Unless you’re willing to prove otherwise, I expect you to pay double.”

“I think we’ll spare the guests.” Laughing, in a weak attempt at self-recovery, he passed her four black chips. “You’re a little too good at this.”

Cara nodded. She had been winning consistently. But she had also been laying the groundwork, heating the water. Each of her statements had been tailored to construct a certain impression of reality, a particular image of the girl no one knew. Now the pan was at boiling point. She leaned back in her chair and fixed her eyes on Piers.

From the Paperback edition.
Hector MacDonald|Author Q&A

About Hector MacDonald

Hector MacDonald - The Mind Game
While Hector Macdonald's debut novel is garnering him comparisons to such writers as Michael Crichton and Alex Garland, critics have also dubbed him a true original. The Mind Game is a riveting blend of science fiction and psychological suspense that places Macdonald prominently on the literary map.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Hector Macdonald

Q: How would you describe this book?

Hector Macdonald: It’s a thriller about a college student who volunteers for a science experiment that takes him to Africa. Once there he becomes enmeshed in a massive, increasingly frightening and terrifying event that completely takes control of his life. Ultimately, I see this as a book about trust and betrayal and relationships going sour. That, rather than the science, is where the story’s emphasis lies. The science is simply an excuse to tell a good story.

Q: Where did the idea for this story come from?

HM: It’s hard to say exactly what made me think of an emotion sensing device but that was the original idea behind the story: what would happen if we could somehow measure emotions? In a way emotions are the last scientific frontier. There’s been a lot of work done in the biological sciences, the human sciences, to explore consciousness and other aspects of rational brains, but emotion, one of the most important driving forces in human evolution, in history, in individual character, seems to have been ignored. Trying to bring this subject into the realm of hard science was a fascinating exercise. Once I came up with the idea of an emotion sensing device, I began to think, “What could you do with it? What would you want to do with it? And how would you go about conducting a basic experiment–measuring someone’s emotions–knowing that your subject’s emotional state will change if he knows he’s being measured?” That leads pretty quickly to the conclusion that you cannot fully measure someone’s true emotions if they know they’re being measured. That, in turn, implies that the subject will have to be deceived or manipulated in some way. It seemed like the basis of a pretty cool plot.

Q: How did your background make itself a factor in this book?

HM: My background is actually an important component of the book. When I started writing I thought the only way to maintain credibility was to write about what I know. Thus I wrote from the perspective of an Oxford biology student, which I was at one time, and set a lot of the story in Kenya, which is where I grew up. I lived in the coastal town of Mombasa, and spent a lot of my childhood on the beach in the kind of environment described in the book: lots of water sports and lots of young people having fun without many cares about the rest of the world. It’s the kind of environment many English and Americans aren’t that familiar with. It’s also a very attractive environment. One of the things I was trying to do was create a complete contrast between a wonderful, paradise-like setting and total hell. Kenya was the perfect place to do that because it is a tremendously beautiful country, but when things go wrong they go badly wrong.

Q: Why did you choose “The Mind Game” as the title for this book?

HM: It was the very first thing that came into my head when I sat down to write the book three years ago. The Mind Game touches on the aspects of psychology and deception in the story as well as the more serious game theory component. I did consider other titles, partly because “mind game” has turned up in other works, but the publisher loved it so we stuck with it.

Q: The story revolves around a device, a new technology, that allows us to measure emotions by detecting neural impulses in the brain. How feasible is this kind of technology?

It’s total science fiction at the moment. However, I recently read about a piece of research being done at an English university in which the researcher connects the nerves in his arm to a computer to record the impulses when he’s happy. He then plays them back to himself when he’s sad in an attempt to make himself happy. That’s scarily close to what I came up with three years ago. Of course reading those impulses through the brain is a lot harder because you can’t actually get to the nerves themselves. You can measure general neuron activity through the skull at the moment but not specific neurons. There’s too much activity in the brain to make the technology I’m talking about feasible right now. But if scientific discovery has taught us anything it is that incredible things often become possible.

Q: How far away are we from being able to do something like this?

HM: I’d say at least ten or fifteen years. The interesting thing about a device that could read emotions from the brain is that it would probably face more problems from regulatory control than it would from actual technical limitations.

Q: Do you think such a device will ever exist?

HM: No. At least I hope it won’t. You can never say things won’t happen. A lot of people have made incredible fools of themselves by doing so. Towards the end of the 19th century a Boston newspaper scoffed at the notion of sound traveling down wires. They said it would never happen. In his day, Winston Churchill said nuclear bombs would never be more powerful than conventional weapons. Science has shown us that we should never say “never!”

Q: What’s the danger of something like this?

HM: Once you start to measure brain waves, you’re on a slippery slope to all sorts of dismal Orwellian futures. The human spirit could be robbed of its most interesting aspects if we were to start involving computers, and other people’s interference, in the brain.

Q: If we can find the technology to measure emotions, do you think the next step would be to dictate emotions?

HM: It would be the obvious thing to do. It’s what we’ve always done with scientific breakthroughs. Once we learn to measure the ability of something, the next step has always been to try to control and manipulate it. First we learned what genes were, then we learned how to read DNA, now we’re learning how to manipulate that. We study the ecology of parasites and other natural pests so as to interfere with that ecology. We study the mating habits of moths so we can decide what kind of scent to put on moth traps. It is a fact of life that when we study nature we also learn to manipulate it to our advantage. When that study involves the brain, free will, emotions–the basic drivers of human behavior–it raises some very scary possibilities. It also raises an interesting question. If we could control our emotions through a device, would it be better to make ourselves happy all the time or would it be better to stay “natural” by being unhappy at times? Assuming such a thing were possible, I can easily envision lots of people going around being completely happy all the time. The only problem is they would be subhuman by definition.

Q: Why would businesses be interested in such a device?

Traditionally businesses have sought to cut costs by reducing, where possible, the raw materials used in creating products. They’re now beginning to recognize that employee morale, enthusiasm, and motivation drives profitability. These are all things that are quite difficult for an employer to manipulate. They try doing so through ridiculous measures like off-site parties and company outings. Sometimes these things work but more often than not they’re ineffective. The notion of businesses trying to interfere with employee morale is a completely new science and it’s not working well. If there ever were a machine which could manipulate emotions directly there would be huge interest from the business world. Then you get into the questions I raise in the book as to whether this would be something that’s voluntary or covert.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of creating a story with so many twists and turns?

HM: The most difficult thing was trying to tie all the parts of the story together. I don’t write my stories by starting at the beginning and working through in a straight line to the end. Instead I build my stories by adding layer after layer. If you pull a string in a large bundle of wool, it will affect all the other parts of the bundle. It was the same with The Mind Game as I wrote it. Different characters, at different times, had different levels of knowledge. The difficulty, as I added more components, and as the various components interacted, was in tying it all together into a story that worked.

Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?

HM: I hope the thing that will surprise them is that they get fooled again and again. I think people will come to the first big twist in the plot, say to themselves, “wow, I didn’t expect that to happen,” and be on the lookout for more. I hope they won’t see what’s coming. To me, good storytelling is what happens when a reader expects to be surprised but still doesn’t see what is coming around the bend.

Q: Was there any pressure on you because this was your first novel?

HM: I would say it was the other way around. Because this was a first novel there was no pressure. It was wonderful. Now I’m working on my second novel and I feel immense pressure to deliver something even better. I’ve gotten a great reaction to The Mind Game from publishers and first reviewers. But the more people say it’s good the more pressure there is to follow up. And you have to follow up in a similar style. The Mind Game is not a book you can write a sequel to so the second book has to be different. At the same time you can’t afford to upset people who’ve enjoyed the first one and who will buy the second one because of it.

Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

HM: I want them to be captivated the whole time they are reading. That’s what I love when I read. I also want them to be informed. I want them to come away from this story having learned something that may not be important to their daily lives but is interesting nonetheless. Game theory and emotion science are still fascinating subjects. I like books that teach me something. I also want readers to feel they’ve experienced the rollercoaster ride of emotions that the main character feels: the stark fear and terror of the jail sequence, the happiness and excitement of the romance, the anger at the betrayal. This is a book about emotions. If the reader feels these, then I’ve succeeded in what I was trying to achieve.

From the Hardcover edition.

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