Science Fiction Sports and Reality

Tuesday , 10, February 2015 11 Comments

“Dunk barely knew these new players at all. If it weren’t for the fact that their names were stenciled across the backs of their green and gold armour, he didn’t think he’d have been able to pick them out from each other in the game. Still, they were on his team, and he expected them to come to his aid.”

Matt Forbeck – Blood Bowl: Death Match (emphasis added)

Last week, I looked at real sports in science fiction, but that’s really just a prelude to a juicy question: can written science fiction (novels or stories) create a new, plausible sport?

Blood Bowl

Blood Bowl: An SF/F game and book series with a death rate so high that if your team is merely decimated by the end, it is considered a low contact exhibition. Note the spiked armor…and ball.

The hilariously violent tabletop and video game spinoff Blood Bowl inspired a trio of novels about ten years ago about Dunk Hoffnung of the Bad Bay Hackers, a character clearly inspired by the freewheeling Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers.

(An aside: What is it about SF and the Packers? George RR Martin featured them in his short “The Last Super Bowl.” In the case of a tabletop game inspiring the same, however, I suppose you don’t have to look much further than Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to make the connection.)

There is absolutely nothing in the novels that indicates that Blood Bowl was ever intended to be a realistic simulation of a ball sport. It is a bloody arena game, where a completed pass is likely to kill or maim the receiver, cheating goes almost completely unpunished, and illegal deathblows (such as with an unapproved weapon) are pretty much the only thing that sends a player to the penalty box for a little while.

It is madcap, to be sure. TPKs (Total ‘Pponent Kills) are common: an owner’s entire professional team of players is routinely wiped out over the course of a season — or a game. Occasionally games are played in hell at the whim of a mad wizard. For the participants, fun and games has very little to do with it.

Still, Dunk survives – thrives even – within the game. So, as fantasy adventures loaded with morbid wisecracks from the game’s color commentators, they are perfectly good fun. But as believable games that someone might actually be crazy enough to play?

I don’t think so. The quote above is indicative of the disconnection between a fictional player and his counterpart in reality.

“Never get married in the morning, because you never know who you’ll meet that night.”

– Paul Hornung, Green Bay Packers

Does that sound like a guy who would expect death-defying loyalty from strangers? This is the same fellow who told Brett Favre to “Play as long as you can. I mean, make them kick you out of the league.” Such counterpoints, of earned loyalty to the game and to teammates, combined with a realistic understanding of people, is a critical component of teamwork, a component essential to verisimilitude in otherwise fake sports. Dunk Hoffnung hasn’t got the real-world insight of playboy risk-taker Paul Hornung, and most sports stars in SF don’t seem to, either.

So Blood Bowl may make for a fun read, but it doesn’t seem connected to a sport as it might be played.

There are other candidates:

Rollerball

One of the more interesting “fabricated sports” has got to be Rollerball, because, as it was played in the movie (the James Caan one, of course. Apparently there was an attempted remake once.) it clearly and obviously had a functioning set of rules, and the team camraderie and competition portrayed had the ring of truth.

Rollerball: A sport created for the movies that – unlike its literary inspiration – can actually be played. Take that Quidditch!

What is most interesting, however, is that the “playable” movie version is almost unrecognizable when compared to the source material. The short story “Rollerball Murder” presents a vague and seemingly unplayable game on an oval track (instead of the practical round track of the movie) where rules are presented for breaking, penalties are rare, and ridiculous amounts of violence are encouraged, and, as the game develops through the story, develops a quidditchian pointlessness in scorekeeping (basically, the team with the last man standing can score until they win, no matter how far behind they have gotten at any point in the game).

The Rollerball game of the story has more in common with Blood Bowl, in fact, than the realistic team sport presented in the movie. (The cast and crew of the original film actually played “pick-up” games of Rollerball during production.)

So, Rollerball doesn’t count for the purposes of finding real sport in written SF, because it wasn’t even conceived as a realistic sport until the movie was produced.

Combat Football

In the long-winded and somewhat renowned “The National Pastime,” Norman Spinrad goes into painstaking detail describing – from the point of view of the cynical and failed filmmaker who invents the game as a means of advancing his career with a television company – Combat Football.

It should be no surprise that Spinrad takes a Progressive approach in his critique of the violence inherent in sport. His over-the-top game taps the animal nature of an unthinking population. Whatever the story’s politics – they take a back seat to some of the more illogical or implausible features of the new game.

Changing your team name to the Buffalo Banthas doesn’t create a new sport in Science Fiction.

For one thing, the wildly popular Combat Football includes only six nationalized teams, none of which have a home city. They tour the country for the best venues, and are organized based on demographic identity:

“This way, we got a team for the spades, a team for the frustrated Middle Americans, a team for the hippies and kids, a team for the spics, a team for the faggots, and a team for the motorcycle nuts and violence freaks.”

From “The National Pastime,” by Norman Spinrad

Even less logically, fan casualties and fatalities are included in the statistics, with numbers soaring into the hundreds per game. They are played in stadiums without security. The plays are portrayed somewhat realistically as akin to American football, but the key play consistently seems to be a punch in the mouth.

Simply put, Combat Football would be unplayable in any venue outside of Spinrad’s imagination.

Hot-Rod Polo

C.M. Kornbluth’s novella The Syndic includes the interesting spectator sport of Hot-Rod Polo, featuring massive tanks instead of horses:

“Orsino’s reactions were geared to hot-rod polo—doing the split-second right thing after instinctively evaluating the roll of the ball, the ricochet of bullets, the probable tactics and strategy of the opposing four. They were not geared to a human being who behaved with the blind ferocity of an inanimate object.”

From The Syndic, by C.M. Kornbluth

Now, I’m not entirely sure I would recognize the blind ferocity of an inanimate object, but what is interesting about hot-rod polo is that while ball control remains critical, so do bullets. Think of a safe version of Car Wars football, and you’ll have Kornbluth’s game. In reality, however, it is little more than vehicular polo with the additional ability to disable your opponent’s “horses” in the course of trying to move the ball with high-caliber gunshots.

Ultimately, it is the first of the sports to be considered here that might fall into the plausible category…but it isn’t significantly different from its real world inspiration; that is, if you were to see it played, and were familiar with polo, you would understand its strategies right away.

So…is there one?

I certainly hope so, but I haven’t found one yet. There is something ironic in this quest, in that one of the least playable or logical sports in science fiction – Quidditch – has been adapted for international league play (known as “muggle quidditch” to distinguish it from the magical game of the Harry Potter books.)

Ender’s Game certainly captures the sense of games – the teamwork, the strategy, the physics, and the surprises -but the overt wargames, including the computer simulation games, that Ender experiences are very different from the leisure sports I have in mind. Jack Vance’s hussade is yet another team wargame, more interesting for its sociological impact than its identity as a sport.

Realistic sports books have contributed to a major American genre for more than a century, and SF vaulted ahead in the pulps along a similar timeline as the sports books. It seems to me that there might be reader interest in SF that introduces a new, plausible sport that is central to the story.

But if so, the market – as far as I can tell – has never attempted to serve such demand.

11 Comments
  • Jeffro says:

    Combat Football was a fairly big part of the Car Wars background. I think it was referred to as “sissy ball” by autoduelists.

  • Kull says:

    In Vance’s The Face Kirth Gersen must best the natives in the game of “Hadaul”. I will leave it to the experts as far as how feasible the game is, but it makes for excellent reading. The game seems pretty doable.

    • Daniel says:

      Perhaps a more interesting aspect of sport in science fiction is just how much of it relies on primitive combat/wrestling concepts, rather than the hypermodern, highly structured rules of the movie version of Rollerball.

      I still think it has something to do with the absence or presence of a ball. Add that variable, and suddenly you have a technology that allows for more advanced team play and strategy.

  • Don says:

    You’ve forgotten ‘Blood of Heroes’ and Jugger. While not a novel, the movie did create a game that is still played. Probably not with a real dog skull I would guess or with eye-gouging chains but it is played.

  • castaliahouse says:

    The Hunger Games would appear to qualify, at least as a Spectator Sport.

  • I mentioned this once, but whatever. Rowling sort of kind of gets around the limitations of Quidditch scoring by making the Quidditch champion not the team who wins the most games, but the team who scores the most points. Thus in book 5 Gryffindor could be trailing by over 500 points for the Quidditch Cup but dominate so handily that they win the championship.

    It’s also played for dry humor. ‘Tis odd indeed though that actual human leagues sprouted up based on the game.

    Rowling also (in my opinion, at least) does a very good job writing her accounts of the games, which were some of my favorite scenes in the series. So that helps at least a little as well.

    • Daniel says:

      A lot of the sports have primary purposes beyond the game for different reasons, and that certainly plays a role. Just as National Pastime was not written to simulate a plausible game but is instead a cynical (if humorous) indictment of modern bloodsport, Quidditch serves as a plot vehicle for the books.

      However, there is a lot of real-life “plot” that a sport can provide by getting inside of it and letting it play out. Teammates you hate in real life but play well with; opponent rivals hated on the field but good friends off; stellar plays that create social opportunities later; major gaffes that haunt a good player for too long – these sort of things benefit in novels when the game has components of realism that tend not to be present in most stories that feature sport.

      Martin’s football stories actually come close to presenting exciting sport action for its own sake, but the sport action itself is not plausible. So even in the examples where the author has tried to capture the spirit of sport first and foremost, the execution has faltered.

  • Random says:

    If you think about the amount of action that goes on in a Blood Bowl game per turn, a real-life game would only last a few minutes!

    • Daniel says:

      This is a very good point. One of the difficulties in verisimilitude in violent tabletop sports is that they don’t have a mechanism for self-preservation (nor should they – necessarily. It would be interesting to see it as a game mechanic, however), and to keep the game on the table fun, no one wants to “roll-up” a long stretch of dull innings, or three-and-outs or whatever internal unit the game has.

      In a real sport, there’s a dynamic balance of fatigue, self-preservation, long-term thinking, short-term stalling, strategic defense, and opportunity taking that goes on, shifting constantly in a dance with the opponent. There are also communication breakdowns and execution problems beyond what is simulated in a tabletop game.

      Car Wars battles are rolled for a couple of hours on the table, but consist of combats as short as 10 seconds in game time.

      This is why Mick Farren’s novel Back from Hell (A Car Warriors Novel) necessarily takes some liberties with the gameplay in order to tell a better story of the Car Wars “sport” of autoduelling.

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