Friday, June 25, 2010

The Future of Sport is Footie.

Battlestar Galactica's overly complex sport, Pyramid, cannot compete with the real world simplicity of Soccer.

The two great blind spots in scifi are sports and religion. There are a few cases where made up games work - I seem to remember the contests in Tron were pretty great, but they were extremely simple. Maybe that’s the trick, if your going to make something up out of whole cloth, less is more. The Force was a solid and sketchy exception to the rule on the religious side. Battlestar Galactica was the worst offender on both counts. "Pyramid" sucked (SO BAD!), and while the set up was really promising - monotheistic robots vs polytheistic humans, the opportunity was squandered. The show degenerated into new-age-ish pap (even new-agers have more depth then that show). Both sports and religion subtracted from that show, but that is almost always the case. 
What got me thinking about this is I spent the last few days watching the World Cup with my very patient friend's Michelle VaughanFelix Salmon. I am not a sports fan at all. Felix & Michelle were really great at explaining all the ins and outs of the rules (Felix is a Brit, Michelle is married to one), the dynamics of the teams, the heats (or whatever) and the other various what what (only about 10% of what I was told could have possibly been absorbed by my wimpy non-sport brain).
When it came time for me to answer a question - how does American football and baseball deal with ties, I was totally stumped. All I could remember was that in Japan baseball games end in ties more often, but I couldn’t remember if there was a rule difference from America Baseball that produced more tie games or what. I suck, but the answer (I seem to remember the Japanese factoid because I was told that the Japanese liked ties, and clearly Americans don’t) got me thinking about the aesthetics of sports. 
James Caan, Rollerball (1975), Archie Gemmill, Scotland vs Holland, 1978 World Cup

While I am not a fan or a player, I have always had a very clear personal sports aesthetic/ethic: less equipment is more inclusive. If the choice is between the winter Olympics and the summer Olympics, I am going to choose summer. This does not mean I hate on downhill skiing - its just to say that marathon running; in which the Ethiopian who trains with nothing at all can beat the best funded American, is obviously the superior sport. (My grandmother’s maiden names mean Crazy North Wind, earned by an ancestor who ran from one town to the next in record time. This contributes to a bias in my personal taste, but my ethic is sound.) Fat guys in $4000.00 body suits riding $40,000.00 sleds down $10,000,000.00 luge runs are absolute bottom of the barrel by any standard of awesome. The elegance and spareness of baseball tops the heavy padding of American football, but both are heavily burdened by the obvious cost of equipment and the even more expensive if somehow less obvious  cost of steroids (Really? No one saw that coming? Dudes all look like Popeye with bubble butts.) Lance Armstrong and all other world class bicyclists are weighed down by the same enormous pharmaceutical handicap (bikes are not cheap, but the real cost is what ever esoteric chemicals they are pumping into their muscles). Fuck those cheaters. Two sports that can carry a person around the globe, making friends without speaking a word, are basketball and soccer. skill alone will earn you a place in a pickup game from Beijing to Johannesburg. But it is footie that will inherit the earth: basketball is a great and simple sport but the backboard and hoop are prohibitively expensive in most of the world. Footie requires only a ball. Win.
Jock/Geek Fail

What does that have to do with scifi sports? The best scifi is not just wiz-bang gadgets, the trick I think is to avoid tech and embrace the less is more rule. Additionally sport should not be just a bit of action, it should project meaning. Take a page from the political scifi of Robert Heinlein and his inheritors like Kim Stanley Robinson and Ken McLeod. The reason FIFA will inherit the earth and the NBA or the NFL won’t is not just because of the equipment, it is because the American leagues, as big and well funded as they are, are no different from American Gladiator. Well their a little different, but it is merely a difference of quality, FIFA is a difference in kind. Watching the World Cup is watching the future. 
I always enjoy the hand wringing around the subject of nationalism that accompanies the World Cup. Americans don’t fret about our own nationalism, we glory in it, so it is refreshing to hear European commentators twist themselves in knots trying to explain how national teams is double-plus good. I am not satisfied by the explanations that I hear however. Defending national competition in terms of bloodless competition doesn’t pass the sniff test. It reminds me too much of watching a teen age boy justify his attachment to bloody video games to his pacifist grandmother by saying it was a needed release for his testosterone ravaged system. Fail. Its not just a weak argument, it misses the point. I would defend International competition in the terms that Steven Johnson defends violent video games. In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson argues that video games are making us smarter, that violent scenarios are besides the point, it is the challenge of understanding the complex platforms of a video game that benefit gamers' neuro-kinetics. 
Sting, Dune (1985),  England's Captain, John Terry, 2010

For this 90 lbs weakling, it is the exercise in meeting the standards of international norms that makes watching the World Cup compelling TV. I was stuck by the ritual of a player about to enter the field being stopped by a FIFA official who patted him down, checking for contraband objects (one assumes sharp pop out needles doped with slow acting poisons hidden in the strap of their leather jock straps). The check was perfunctory, the exchange between athlete and bureaucrat was good natured. I recognized the same sort of exchange that takes place when I pass through airport security. We understand that there are jerks who will try and take advantage, and creeps who will attempt to subvert, so we allow the laying of hands. It is part of playing a shared game. 
In addition there was the the pleasure the press was taking in the South Africans as a host. Just like the Olympics, when a host nation has never hosted a large international competition, there is anxiety that things will go badly. Will they rise to the occasion? Will the Greeks have a transportation system. Will the Chinese allow press freedom? This, the decorum of the players and the crowds, the challenge of getting along, not as a symbol of peaceful competing, but as an actual country negotiating a peaceful event on a massive scale is the real intelligence building aspect of the games. 
The dystopia of overly complex sports that encourage stupidity might possibly evolve within a nationalistic backwater like the US (seriously, what is more nationalistic: national teams, or playing sports NO ONE else plays? if FIFA doesn’t save Americans from ourselves, some combination of Rollerball and Idiocracy is the in the works), or in some tired post-apocalyptic scenario like Beyond Thunderdome, where peaceful international cohabitation is moot. In our most likely future, the one with billions of people living in very close proximity and intermixing in dense urban settings, the future of sport is Soccer. It is a elegantly simple game in which the poorest can compete, a game that can serve as a much needed platform for trust building on an international scale, and a game that is fun to watch. Win.
The choice is our: FICA or the Apocalypse.

Returning to the subject of scifi religion, it really sucks. Its usually little more than a cop out. This is not a case of less is more. The finale of Lost was nothing less than a total and complete cop out. Fail. Instead of writing a complex and challenging scifi ending to the series, they pandered to the lowest common denominator via spirituality. it is much easier to understand a well worn concept like purgatory and heaven, than an awesome and fresh scifi blunderbuss like a higher-dimensional roadside picnic
The problem is there is almost never religion in scifi - not god, not spirituality, religion. There should be a Catholic on the Starship Enterprise - I understand that the carefully coded imaginary allow for stories about race and religion, but the truth is that was an important devise in the buttoned down world of the early Cold War. Arrtists no longer need allegorical ass covering to any where near the same degree. What would be ballsy now is to tackle real religions in an imagined future. The model here should be Kim Stanley Robinson's Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars. In that story baseball is the setting for a weird mix of biology (humans born on Mars are really tall), physics (blah blah, stuff I don't understand, blah), and the imagined relationship between Mars and its home world. Solid. That with a real religion.
It be WAY more interesting to see how an actual religious body would change in the face of alien contact and halo decks, than of listen to a Klingon spout off in a made up language. Why are there no Mormons on the moon? Mel Brooks promised us "Jews in Space" at the end of History of the World Part One - Spaceballs was as close as we have ever gotten, and it was about the Force not Judaism. (Frank Herbert included a group of hidden Orthodox Jews in one of the later Dune books - Chapterhouse maybe.) I have been trying to think of a good scifi film about religion and it has been really hard. Stanley Kubrick said that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most expensive film about God ever made, and that's just it. It is about God, not religion. The only film I could think of was the very flawed but still awesome film, Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle. That film had no explicit real world religion (I wrote about it here), But it was all about heresy, and heresy is all about religion - not  God, not spirituality. Win.
Win: Sunshine (2007), Fail: Lost (2010)


  1. for religion in a sci-fi book, you can't get better than Canticle for Leibowitz

  2. Great call berts! It has been so long since I took a swing at that book all I can remember is illuminated circuit boards - am I remembering right? I was never able to get through the Bead Game, wonder if that fits the bill?

  3. BTW, Happy Birthday John. Now, on to business.

    I think both sports and religion are best done in vague terms because as real world topics people spend a great deal of time studying them. Too often the Sci-Fi writer(or one from any other genre for that matter) would need to create the entire history of their world in exacting detail, and then have that consistent with their story. This is probably more detail than most creators can go into.

    If you want religion in space, the most comprehensive version I've seen was Babylon 5 (complete with every human religion in space), but the show overall wasn't that good. I think the new BSG did a pretty good job with its depiction of religion. I didn't care for the overall theistic conclusion, but I don't think it was handled too badly.

    As for Pyramid in BSG, did they ever really go into it that much? I haven't seen 'The Plan' or any of Caprica, but I don't recall them going into it that much depth in BSG-proper. As for it's complexity, as a baseball fan* I can live with it. (A friend of mine and his girlfriend from France came with my wife and me to watch Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, and I spent the first few innings trying to explain the game to them, before we all gave up.)

    * Speaking of which one of the best things about Baseball (or the MLB version, which doesn't allow for ties) is that the rules of the game don't suddenly change when there is a tie. Baseball continues to play until there is a winner, but it remains intrinsically fair. The other side always gets their chance at bat. There are no shoot outs or possessions dictated by something random like a coin toss.

  4. All I can remember about Pyramid is that it looked so lame it embarrassed me to watch the actors pretending to play it. I have never seen Babylon 5 (does not sound like I am missing much), I love the Frank Herbert's Dune books (I am the rare fan that likes the last 4 books more than the first).
    Herbert's religious cynicism was pitch perfect for scifi - He dealt with it as a human enterprise that could be manipulated. There was no spirituality in his books. It was hard scifi about religion, a huge man trap for most scifi.
    I have been trying to think of what other narrative holes scifi falls into (without much luck). Any suggestions?

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  6. I agree that pyramid looked silly and incomprehensible, but for me that was part of the charm as it related to the show. So much of the mis-en-scene of the show was familiar that it was nice to reminded that they are different. Pyramid's absurdity reminded me of critcket...

    The thing that bugs me the most about a lot of Sci-Fi is that the creator will have a hook of some kind that is exploited and drives the story as the singular cultural touchstone in the fictional world and doesn't allow for the kind of complex social/ technological reactions that would arise in a "real" world. But maybe that's more of a meta-problem that would cause individual problems with religion or sports.

  7. I also have 2 things about soccer:

    1. How do you address the behavior where with any contact the player will immediately collapse to the ground and writhe in (phantom) agony in attempt to draw a foul?

    2. The graphics on the local Spanish-language station's coverage are reminiscent of Smithson's early crystalline-based work.

  8. Take a screen shot for me - I have no TV. As for the fouls - how great is it that a world class professional sport makes play acting an integral part of the game? That is homo-ludens at its most complete.