Real Sports and Science Fiction

Tuesday , 3, February 2015 18 Comments

Lord Dunsany wrote a story about the devil and the game of cricket, so science fiction and sports go way back. In fact, general (non-science fiction) sports fiction – at least as it is known in America – has its roots in the exotic.

Tip Top Weekly’s Frank Merriwell would stop a train, fight a bear, make it to class on time, and thwart the treachery of Harvard’s defensive line.

In the 1890s, modern organized sport was exclusive to preparatory schools and colleges, and even within those rare domains, actually participating in the sport was often explicitly fraternal – sometimes even with by-laws and official initiation rites. Pro baseball had been around for only thirty years, but the NFL was not even a notion. Basketball was not yet invented.

So, Tip Top Weekly, which touted itself as both “An ideal publication for the American Youth” and as having the “Largest Weekly Circulation in America” was very instrumental in creating the superheroic sports icon, with the introduction of Gilbert Patten’s (writing pseudonymously as Burt L. Standish) honest and happy (and aptly named) Frank Merriwell.

Merriwell stories appeared for more than 70 years in some form (weeklies, dime novels, pulps, and eventually hardbound reprints, fixups, and comic books), and it is estimated that more than 500 million copies of Merriwell stories were printed, most of them sports-related.

Win Hadley Sports Stories are typical examples of the North American sports fiction.

The realm of Merriwell, and sports stories in general, was exotic and strange and exclusive, but the main character was an everyman, and this laid the groundwork for sports fiction in North America as it is now known.

Science Fiction has included real sports at least since Alice picked up a flamingo in Wonderland with which to play croquet. In the 1970s, the now-internationally renowned George R.R. Martin wrote at least two professional football stories of which I am aware: “Run to Starlight and “The Last Super Bowl.”

Martin clearly loves the game of football: his descriptions of the action are detailed, dedicated, and knowledgeable of the rules and flow of the game. However, reading both – and especially “Starlight” – I wonder if he ever played the game in his life, even for fun. If he did, he clearly forgot some fundamental principles, because his understanding of football physics is laughable. In “Run to Starlight” the reader is expected to believe that a blocky, physically powerful alien race that is on average a foot shorter than the opposing human teams, and ploddingly slower would be able to absolutely dominate – at will – both sides of the football against experienced, faster, taller humans.

To be fair, the aliens are remarkably strong: able to kick balls out of the stadium, for example. However, you don’t need to watch a lot of football, much less play a down, to realize that while strength provides a weapon in the war of attrition…speed kills. “Starlight,” as science fiction, is a tough story to swallow. I’ll suspend my belief as long as I’m not asked to hang it by the neck until dead.

Martin’s other story, “The Last Super Bowl” predicts (from the 1970s, I believe) the end of live sporting events, with the playing of the final NFL game in January 2016, between the Green Bay Packers and the Hoboken (formerly New Jersey, formerly New York) Jets before an audience of “832 aging fans, 12 sportswriters, a Boy Scout troop, and the commissioner of the National Football League.” By that time, the MLB, NHL and NBA have already folded. The killer? Realistic computer simulations of past great teams. Someone alert John Madden.

Again Martin goes into careful detail about the flow of this final game, and while he doesn’t make the baffling mistake that he does in “Run to Starlight” but he does miss some fundamentals that would necessarily be a real part of the game. At the conclusion of the game, the teams walk off – sad to see it end, but there is no celebration for the victors. I don’t care if you play in front of six people, winning always expresses itself. There are other oddities: the outcome of the game seems to be fixed, and the sportswriters are irritated when the game does not appear to be going according to the prediction. It makes no sense within the narrative, and is inconsequential to the plot; so I can only assume that Martin actually believed that at some level, winning and losing is somehow not real – or at best, not comprehensible – within the game. As I mentioned, he enjoys the game — I’m just not sure he’s ever been inside the game.

Don’t wait up for a re-issue of Run to Starlight. The sequel to A Dance with Dragons will come out before then…

A majority of science fiction stories that involve real sports frequently are primarily interested in criticizing violence. In William Campbell Gault’s brutal, moralizing “Title Fight” the game is the normal sport of boxing, but it is the first sanctioned fight between a robot and a human. (In the same year of publication, Richard Matheson attacked the concept from an opposite direction, to much greater effect in “Steel”) “Title Fight” is about the violence, and the brutality of mankind, and a warning. And Spinrad’s “National Pastime” can only be described as a cynical dismissal of sport – and football in specific – as anything but base and ancient catharsis. Brian W. Aldiss fails almost at every point possible to understand the nature and essence of the sport of hunting in “Poor Little Warrior!”

There are exceptions: I have no idea if Roger Zelazny was a sport fisherman or not, but The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth is the finest expression of fishing in Science Fiction that I can think of. Poul Anderson’s “The Immortal Game” is a downright playable story of chess. Also, there are a number of science fiction stories that take on gladiatorial combat (such as Frederic Brown’s “Arena”) as sport and/or war, and many of those come out all right.

But when it comes to real, ball-centered team sports, I have the sense that the majority of science fiction writers who are interested in the subject are also not practitioners, and lack the imagination to conceive of them realistically.

Next time, I’ll see if I can’t explore the issue from the other direction: through the lens of fictional sports created within science fiction.

18 Comments
  • Morgan says:

    Some science fiction writers wrote stories for the sports pulp magazines. Gardner F. Fox had about as many sports stories as he did in the science fiction and weird pulps.

    • Daniel says:

      Good point. Did he write any science fiction sports stories? I only know his Kothar S&S, and a couple of strict space stories, and the comics, of course.

      Matheson wrote excellent boxing sci-fi. But I can’t think of a single real (i.e. baseball, basketball, football) ball-oriented, team sport sci-fi story where the actual gameplay makes sense. Surely there’s got to be one.

      You know, as I think of it, there was some Canadian fiction about hockey in the future that won some awards back in the 80s or 90s. I need to track that down.

      • Morgan says:

        No cross over by Fox of sports and science fiction. Fox had a couple of mythos stories (never reprinted interestingly). Once he hit his stride, his stories read like a hungover Edmond Hamilton and Robert E. Howard collaborating. James Blish probably wrote the most sports fiction for the pulps.

        • Morgan says:

          A review of Gardner Fox titles in sports pulps did reveal this title: Atomic Fireballer, (ss) Ace Sports May 1948. Don’t know if there is any science fictional content or not.

  • automatthew says:

    winning always expresses itself

    This is a concise condemnation of everything Martin writes. He hates winners.

  • Jill says:

    I know a fair number of sci fi writers. They seem to be very split on the subject of sports. But then writers are often academics and/or intellectuals, regardless of whether they write sci fi. And intellectuals can be clutzy, not very spatially aware, and not very good team players. But re using sports to criticize violence–modern sports are a civilized way to express tribalism and combat. The sci fi writer often sees Rome on the horizon, though, and will then develop the future as some form of entertainment crazed Idiocracy.

    • Daniel says:

      Yeah, the Rome effect may be the only reason sports appear in science fiction at all. I’d love to see a SF story where the game is just a game, and it is exciting and instrumental to the plot, but that all of society’s fate or judgment doesn’t rest on it. Maybe if real sports were smaller in SF, they’d be more effective.

      Heck, Run to Daylight would have been both hilarious and moving if the run down league that lets the aliens play simply whipped the new guys on the field.

      • Jill says:

        Soccer plays a role in the book I’m currently banging my head against the wall trying to write, but it’s all character and not plot-oriented. Well, I dunno, it’s slightly plot-oriented because… Well, anyway, I have a very low chance of success at this book.

        • Daniel says:

          She shoots, she self-excoriates!

          As long as you don’t rig the soccer game so that uncoordinated and slow alien team new to the sport wins every game by six goals, you’ll be ahead of Martin.

          • Jill says:

            Just being realistic about my ability to comprehend physics, sports, and the male mind.*

            *Of course, unlike the other two, I’ve played soccer. 😉

  • VD says:

    I have an amount of soccer in A World in Shadow. I daresay that anyone who knows the sport and reads the chapter involved will find it convincing… even though a girl scores a goal.

    The problem with sports in SF is the same problem with the complete lack of male seducers in SF. The gamma males who mostly comprise the SF writing community don’t know a damn thing about either.

    That being said, the dumbest sport in the history of fiction is quidditch. It’s like adding someone throwing a tennis ball from the far end of the basketball court that counts 100 points if it goes in and instantly ends the game. Absolutely ludicrous.

    • Daniel says:

      Yes, you do. I should have mentioned it as an outlier, along with Edo van Belkom and hockey. I’m sure I’m missing more, but not many.

      Gary Wright did some good autoracing stories whose titles I can’t conjure but the terrible football in Piers Anthony’s Blue Adept is much more indicative of ball sports in SF.

      And as far as quidditch goes…I’m going to take a look at its brethren (fake sports in SF) next.

    • Well, it was in the books at least partially for comic effect. Rowling gets around the most obvious flaw a bit by making the team that wins the championship be the team that scores the most points as opposed to the team that wins the most games.

  • Krul says:

    Even though it wasn’t technically a sport, the zero gravity laser-tag in Ender’s Game kind of felt like one.

    • Daniel says:

      I completely agree. Game simulation is really quite well done in Ender’s Game, thankfully so. The book is entirely about it!

  • Warren Abox says:

    To be fair to Martin, the football game of the 1970s was much different from today’s pass-happy game which hamstrings defenses in a myriad of ways. Sure, a plodding team of brutes would serve as little more than speed bumps to today’s players, but in the 70s? Okay, it might still be a bit of a stretch, but not quite so far fetched as it is today.

  • Daniel says:

    The story is actually quite pass happy, and even if they ran the veer (which they don’t in the story), the humans get inexplicably beat to the corner multiple times. On top of that, a lot of the action hinges on a unforced fumble in one of the games; while this is potentially realistic from a gameplay viewpoint, from a story, it – uh – takes all the air out of the ball, when the story was supposed to be showing how dominant the aliens are. This is hard to believe, when the humans are fundamentally not competent (they also can’t execute the triple option at all against the short little behemoths.)

    So not only are a number of passes thrown (and the aliens are shown as completely unable to stop them) but the story admits a number of human plays which, if executed reliably, would take advantage of the great physical difference. It just reads rigged.

    And I’m not even trying to rip on Martin. Run to Starlight has aged poorly for other reasons, but it was an early tale of his. The Last Super Bowl, while wrong in capturing the spirit of sport, has aged much better.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *