When His Hydraulics Failed and Mighty Casey Did Strike Out: Sports Science Fiction

People spend years or decades of their lives, training and hoping for a chance to run a specific distance a few hundredths of a second faster than everyone else, to vault a centimetre or two higher. Is this monumentally impressive or embarassingly trivial? Neither? Both?

Illustration by Paul Jarvey

I rather like the idea of “obscure sub-field of science” fiction. As we come up on a century of science fiction as a cohesive and recognizable literary genre, the far-flung ideas of rocket science, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have been extrapolated, deconstructed, recombined, and otherwise speculated upon to Alpha Centauri and back.

What about the lesser known sciences? Library science fiction: a great-great-grandchild of Dewey envisions a new way of categorizing non-fiction, and it changes everything. Agricultural science fiction: the world of farming is about to see its biggest shake-up since the John Deere tractor, but yuppie suburbanites just want to know, what of their organic baby lettuce?

Or what about sports science fiction? Actually, we may have something there. You can even set aside the parallel Disney universe Emilio Estevez stepped into that one time. You know, the one where Canada apparently took the year off and the two best junior hockey teams in the world were either all from the same neighbourhood in Minnesota or else the evil villain part of Iceland.

Sports have taken many a turn for the speculative over the years. For many American writers, writing a nostalgia-steeped tale about baseball seems to be a rite of passage, though the most famous example, the film Field of Dreams (based on the story Shoeless Joe), came from an Alberta writer.

Although we’re talking about sports in science fiction, not fantasy, W.P. Kinsella’s tale of prophetic voices and ghostly ball players is emblematic of the widespread belief in the transcendence of the sport. The story pivots about the 1919 World Series cheating scandal, yet the game is still presented as ultimately pure. Decades later, doping is rampant, but somehow the game still manages to be, on some level, both innocent and magical.

Robert Reed’s “Starbuck” features as its title character a natural-born pitcher in a league where nearly every player is enhanced, not merely with steroids, but with nanotechnology and more besides. Somehow, with brains and guts and whatever heat’s left in his un-augmented arm, Starbuck needs to strike out three batters he knows to be more machine than man.

There are tinges of John Henry here, and we’ll come back to that theme, but it’s very much couched in baseball mythos. Even in a complex future, there will still be heroes in this world. Naturally they’ll be wearing polyester and cleats.

Doping really is a topic rife for speculation and extrapolation. While steroids changed the meaning of what it meant to cheat in a sport, both nascent and never imagined technologies might change the meaning of what it means to dope.

We’ve already discussed nanomachines, a newer take on the old cyborg concept. “Old Timer’s Game”, written by Ben Bova for his recent anthology, follows sports medicine as it moves from surgery to joint replacement to–and here’s where things take a different direction–stem cells, and then finally telomeres that keep baseball players physically young for decades longer. Interestingly, this merely extends their prime rather than improving upon it. The unintended consequence of this new career longevity is that new players are unable to break into the big leagues, which have become crowded with old-timers, but at least the danger of superhuman athletes fundamentally changing the game is, in this future, a solved problem.

That makes Ben Bova’s tale (and the companion piece fellow editor Eric Choi wrote later) an exception. Because doping has always been about doing more than is possible with a natural human, however you define it. And this isn’t science fiction, it’s right now.

“Fuel” envisions a world in which doping is both legal and ubiquitous, but the form it takes is designer blood, taken by transfusion to improve athletic performance and sold by Nike. This is quite a bit darker, as it becomes almost impossible to opt out, and has filtered down to the high school level. Of course, the economics of it makes no sense, and it’s a bit of a science fictional twist on a story done much better in true-to-life films like Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights, both set in the heart of Texas football country.

More importantly, those films show that amidst all the skewed life priorities, parental and social pressure, and sheer physical risk these young men face, there are still moments of pure joy to be found in the game. “Fuel” wasn’t written by someone who loves a sport but is still willing to criticize it, and I think that’s key. Because even if most science fiction readers aren’t sports fans, we’re open-minded and understand what it means to be passionate about something.

Nancy Fulda’s Hugo- and Nebula-nominated “Movement” is, therefore, the polar opposite of “Fuel”. It features a protagonist with both a deep genius for dance and severe autism. Her parents are contemplating a treatment that will ameliorate her social problems but likely destroy her talent. Dancers are both artists and athletes, but what the two groups have in common, I think, is a higher priority on greatness than happiness.

It brings to mind a paradox I found myself turning over in my head during the recent Summer Olympics. People spend years or decades of their lives, training and hoping for a chance to run a specific distance a few hundredths of a second faster than everyone else, to vault a centimetre or two higher. Is this monumentally impressive or embarassingly trivial? Neither? Both?

I want to finish off with two stories about running. In Ian Creasey’s “The Prize Beyond Gold”, enhancement is the norm and humans with ordinary bodies are a bit of a niche group, akin to today’s organic foodies. But one thing still belongs to the unenhanced: world records, which can only be set by people using the “ancestral model”.

Centuries of modern sport have resulted in most records approaching their asymptotic limit. In the century in which this story is set the men’s 100 metre record has been unbroken at 8.341 seconds for 70 years. (As of this writing, Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds record has held on for a full decade.)

When modification of an athlete’s body through surgery or drugs is off-limits, everything else must be controlled and monitored, and only a perfect storm of exact training and mental and emotional preparation with perfect weather conditions make the rare breaking of a record possible, and that’s the scene as this story opens. Of course, the mathematical certainty of victory means the race itself is not the point, and the story ends with the firing of the starting pistol.

In my absolute favourite sports story, neither is victory guaranteed nor the challenge fair. Derek Zumsteg’s “Usurpers” is set in the near future, wherein gene doping, if illegal, is either too difficult to detect or simply not important to regulators. Suddenly, the rich white kids are dominating cross country. A summer trip to China to get some custom genetic changes and muscle grows faster, blood oxygenation increases, victory comes without effort.

Our hero is King. He is poor, black, determined, and deservedly arrogant. He refers to the gene dopers as knock-offs, though he recognizes their advantage. He’s quit his job to focus all year on preparing for this one critical meet. Yes, this is the other John Henry tale I alluded to, an all-natural athlete competing against biotech, but it’s not anti-science, it’s anti-laziness. In this athletic contest only brains and guts can beat money.

King has been working with sports scientists at the university, checking his VO2 max and other physiological details, modelling, calculating his theoretical best possible performance, his absolute physical limits. He’s working with a mysterious trainer who only communicates by email, responding any time of the day or night, and instantaneously, at that. King is sure his trainer is an AI program, chewing on King’s performance data and constantly adjusting his regimen, always optimizing, shooting for that theoretical limit.

The prose style mimics a race, with short, punctuated sentences, mirroring the out-of-breath, brain-can-barely-process-complete-sentences feeling of an intense run. But this is a knock-down drag-out brawl of a race, with thrown elbows and insults alike. With their inhuman lung capacity and red cell counts, King’s perfectly sculpted competitors are a half-dozen Ivan Dragos to his one Rocky Balboa, but they have one weakness. They never worked for any of it. They don’t know pain. And pain is King’s friend.

King may not seem like the most likeable character on paper. He’s an extreme underdog yet he refuses to be humble. He’s acerbic, dismissive, and willing to play just a little bit dirty, although he doesn’t dish out anything he can’t take. But he’s destined for greatness and he knows it and the readers know it, too. I’m reminded of the scientists and engineers, always brilliant, sometimes arrogant, that made up the SF heroes of the Golden Age. Sometimes greatness can be a virtue in itself, if you earn it.

Are you surprised that in my, admittedly, not quite exhaustive survey, the most exciting science fictional sporting event I found turned out to be an intramural cross-country meet? I’ll admit at first glance that it doesn’t sound as exciting as Death Race 2000The Hunger Games, or The Running Man. Nevertheless, I stand by it. If you read one of the stories I’ve discussed here today, make that it.

All of the stories I’ve discussed here pulled me in to some extent or another, making me care more about a given sport than I normally would. Case in point, I’ve only ever sat through two baseball games but have much enjoyed probably a half-dozen baseball stories over the years. But “Usurpers” did something else. It made me actually want to get off the couch and start running. A science nerd exercising? How novel. I might even do it.

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