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.
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.
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.
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.