All Glory to the Game
“I’m Jonathan E, none other.” This isn’t the first line of the story, but it may as well be. What am I talking about? “The game, the game, and all glory to it.”
So ya, now I am just playing with you. That last quote was the paraphrased first line. And again, what the heck am I talking about?
To bring you up to speed; Rollerball Murder by William Harrison, was published with other stories in 1975 but the title story was first printed as a stand alone story in a magazine (I want to say in Esquire but I can’t find that source now, so don’t quote me). But aside from that, here is the interesting thing about the story. It was turned into two different movies with the same name; Rollerball. The first time was in 1975 and the anthology was released to tie in with the movie. The second movie came out in 2002 and wasn’t as well regarded as the first one.
I thought of going through the movies along with this but really, the written story is the one that I have the longest history with and I want to spend some time with it again. As crazy as this might seem, I first encountered the story when I was in 9th grade (We won’t visit when that was but it was between the two movies). That year of all the stories and books we had to read for English, only two of them stood out for me. The first was Bram Stokers Dracula (big win on that one) and then Rollerball Murder.
First off, I loved this story. And I found out recently when I read it a couple more times before I started writing this, I still love the story. The interesting thing about it now though, as an older reader I picked up on things I don’t remember from when I first read it.
And this is when we get into the secondary considerations. The story is essentially a cyberpunk dystopian view of the future, only the term cyberpunk hadn’t been coined yet when the story first appeared. There were a number of science fiction stories that came out precyberpunk that fit perfectly within the ideals of the genre. Although it lacked the tech and body modifications that we have come to expect from many cyberpunk stories the underlying culture within the story fits perfectly within that framework.
Which means while the idea of reading the story was still fresh in my mind (though I hadn’t reread it yet) I spent some time searching for old cyberpunk stuff that would tie in with what I could expect from the story. Before your nongaming eyes glaze over, I want you to know I won’t bore you with all those details. Instead I am going to pull out some real world connections that are pertinent to the culture that is present within the story.
The story itself is a dystopian, which means that there is a power structure upheaval within the world. Essential those in power have everything and those not in power have as much as nothing (in a nutshell). What this means within the story is rich and powerful are the executive class, the people who run the corporations. And to drive that point home, the entire corporate structure has homogenized and consolidated to the point that there are now only certain categories.
Basically, before our hero became a professional athlete he had worked as a laborer for big oil. Big oil eventually became simply ENERGY. This is the collective corporation that controls all power for the world. To feed the world we now have FOOD. The other corporations follow a similar pattern, it isn’t glamorous but it fits the part for the story. The people who control these mother companies are the ones who essentially run the world.
Then there is the game. The game is the distraction that keeps the masses from digging to deep into their lot in life. As long as they are fed the death and dismemberments of the players they have their entertainments to keep them occupied. For the players like Jonathan, it means amassing fame and money, and eventually the trade of their lives to feed the bloodthirsty masses.
I don’t know if you are seeing a pattern here, but when I saw it today I got a few chills. When we look at our political situation currently, it could be said that we are walking a fine line toward a reality similar to this. But this is the power of science fiction and literature in general. Many times we are shown a reflection of the world around us. Sometimes it holds true, sometimes it takes a little while before we see the directions that the story has shown us.
The thing with Jonathan is, he is the best at what he does. Aside from his ego, we are taken on a tour through his life and see all the things he has acquired from his dedication to playing the game. He has gained so much, his wealth rivals that of many of the top executives that control the world. But at the same time we find that he is lacking many of the things that make it all worthwhile.
Aside from the knowledge, the learning he has lost out on (books are gone completely and you need a special license to watch the educational films or listen to the tapes that are available) we also find that he is lonely. Everything he has and everything he has had, has come from the game and his willingness to kill and possibly die for the entertainment of the masses. The girls who come and go from his life are more than likely corporate spies, given to him to watch over what he does with his time.
And then there is the wife he once had, from the time he once thought he was truly happy. She left him when he was young, at a time when it looked like he would never be able to provide for her in the manner she wanted. She had left him for an executive. At the time he was little more than menial labor. But with power comes a bit of privilege. Before what could be his final game, he is granted a boon of some time again with his ex wife, the only woman he loved.
When she leaves him after their days of sex and debauchery, he comes to the realization that even the love he had thought pure was probably tainted by the corporations that ruled his life. When she left him, it set him up to become the killer he was now. Jaded and cynical all he really knew was how to destroy his opponents in the game.
There is a bit of detail within the story about what the game is and how it is played. Essentially, it is a variation on roller derby but with a much darker spin. Which has been the driving thought of many of the stories and movies that take on this theme of gladiatorial games for entertainment. The games must have an element of death and dismemberment in the bloodiest ways imaginable. And those who watch them crave the death and destruction even as they know that all of it is to distract them from the hopelessness of their lives. Kinda makes you wonder what the future might hold in store for us if stories like this prove to be true.
I think I am going to end this bit here. Basically I have babbled quite a bit about this story, and it isn’t really that long of a story (maybe 5500 words). When you think along those lines and consider that I have gone a little over 1300 words just talking about it, there is quite a bit to the story. Pick it up and spend some time with it. Read it a few times, there is something new to be gained with each reading.
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