Book Review: The Gamesman, Barry N. Malzberg (1975)

(Ed Soyka’s cover for the 1975 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

“The Game is not a metaphor. The Game is not a closed system which represents something larger; but the choices made within its pathways are exactly that, choices which have to do with the immediate outcome. It would be a mistake to think of the success or failure in the Game having anything to do with the world. There are not metaphors. There are no outer significances. There is merely the Game itself and what it accomplishes upon its participants” (37).

In Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story, “The Library of Babel” the universe is conceived of as a vast library stretching in all directions.  In this spectacular environment—an endless series of hexagonal rooms, each one with the same number of shelves with the same number of books with the same number of letters inscribed on each page, etc. Borges brings into sharp, and unsettling relief, complex metaphysical speculations.

In The Gamesman (1975) Barry N. Malzberg creates a similarly sculpted world with two bifurcated environments—the outside world where all points are linked by the Transporter and the inside world of the Game.  On the surface, each is governed by opposite and distinct epistemological paradigms.  The Game is tightly controlled, a closed system, with rules, delineated roles, and predictable stimuli and responses.  The external environment is ostensibly free of any constraint: travel between places is instantaneous, complete freedom. But both are dehumanizing manifestations of an increasingly technological future.

Like the Game itself—“simple on its surface, [yet] maddeningly complex” (21)—the novel’s deceptively straightforward premise unfolds in distinctly Malzbergian fashion, tackling psychological themes such as alienation, social control, and sexual frustration.  Unlike Beyond Apollo (1972) or even his early work The Empty People (1969) the metafictional elements are present but take a back seat.

Highly recommended for fans of Malzberg and experimental/literary SF.  A meaning rich text not for the fainthearted…  For those who are intrigued but have not read any of his work before I recommend trying Beyond Apollo (1973) or The Falling Astronauts (1971) first before delving into his extensive back catalogue.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The principle of the Game is built deeply into the culture.  Two hundred years ago Games began to dominate the lives of the people whose energies were being diffused into a hundred preoccupations.  It become foreseeable that soon it would be entirely a Games culture where people perceived their lives not as lived internally but only as they relate to the Games; the energies of the populace more and more were being drained into the Games format” (69)

The Game was initially created as a response to “an era of crushing anonymity as a means for people to get some control over their lives” (109).  However, more and more the Players “perceive their lives as only a dim refraction of the reality of the Games” (69).  Malzberg’s central character, Papa Joe Block, is one of these Players.

First, the nature of the game: the Game is a “closed society” (26) comprised of three groups (the Players, the Gamesmen, the Games Master).  The Players are usually young, desperate to win.  Whether or not this is possible, and the realization of whether or not this is possible are integral parts of the Game.  They spend their days when they are not playing in small cubicles, reviewing transcripts of their failures, preparing for their next tests.

The Players take turns being Gamesmen, the masked interrogators, who record the results of a vast variety of stimuli including knowledge based tests (the date of JFK’s assassination, the ten postulates of the Game), sexual tests (whether penetration or orgasm was achieved), and various other psychologically taught experiences.  Each Player has a Gamesman, each Gamesman is a Player: “there are no outside forces, there are merely the Players destroying one another and so on” (24).  And then there is the Games master, who is neither a “Player or Gamesman but he who controls all” (24).  The Games Master oversees the integrity of the game, carefully manipulates every Player who joins, and creates the highest tests.

Despite the statistical impossibility of winning, Block proclaims that the Game “has come alive to me in its shimmering, almost coruscating abstraction, it is possible for me to respond to those thing abstractions almost viscerally…” (38).  Despite Block’s reluctance to interpret the Game in its clearly metaphysical dimensions (52), the Game is transformed from some mechanical input system of stimulus and response into the way in which he engages with the world, the way in which all meaning can be interpreted, a microcosm of the world.  The Game and existence outside of the Game collapses: “Outside of the Games, existence is perceived only in dull flashes and glimmers of light” (51).

Thus, Block is desperate to form a connection with the other Players, his Gamesman:  “I do believe this, that I could if I would touch Gamesman, glimpse it vividly in dreams or in little aspects of light.  I see the way that Gamesman and I might be if we were ever to achieve that moment of connection, bleak but breaking into a warmth of feeling I had never before known” (11).

Block deludes himself into thinking, like every other player, that he will be the one that “will emerge from its difficult network into triumph; he will pull from this dark lottery the prize of connection” (22).  He wants to connect to the other Players.  In a harrowing sequence where Block is tested based on his sexual prowess (or rather, lack thereof) he thinks of his partner: “She is merely working under her own Gamesman.  Nevertheless Block has a tug of feeling, he wishes that he could know her better, in some personal sense that is to say” (13).  But the Game is designed to reduce all interaction, all emotional connection, to the level of statistics, numerical indicators that propel the Player either to a higher or lower level.  The Game accomplishes the opposite of what it was created to do.

Eventually Block is contacted by his Gamesman, who takes off his mask (55) and calls into question whether the Game can be beaten and how the results could have been made up. Block recoils when his Gamesman threatens to unsettle his entire purpose in life: “You understand that it’s quite hopeless then” (64).  When the Game’s integrity is threatened, even without proof, Block wonders whether his Gamesman has corrupted him entirely and whether he should pass on the corruption when he administers as Gamesman (87).

But then again, questioning the integrity of the Game seems to be yet another test in his level by level ascent towards consummation. And then, the final psychological test….

Final Thoughts

Despite Bock’s reluctance to grapple explicitly with the metaphysical components of the Game, it is obviously an extended and powerful metaphor: the Game created as a way to control one’s own life is transformed into yet another way lives can be controlled. The Game is another arena where the slow dissolution of individuality, emotional connection, and meaning-rich interaction transpire with startling power.

As I read more and more of his novels, I continuously uncover fragments that explain Malzberg’s writing techniques. For example, he constantly shifts between first and third perspective. Papa Joe Black proclaims in the first sentence of the novel, “Sometimes I think of myself in the first person and other times I think of myself in the third; it is this shift of perspective, of the panels of attribution, which makes me the complex and valuable human being which I am” (11).  Third person often reveals how the character wants to be viewed while first person hints at more unguarded thoughts.

Ultimately, The Gamesman (1975) is a finely wrought, literary, and claustrophobic nightmare by a sorely underrated author.  I have devoured ten of his novels so far [consult the INDEX for a complete review list] and have eight more novels and four short story collections on my shelf waiting to be consumed and relished…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gamesman, Barry N. Malzberg (1975)”

  1. Could you recommend other sci fi novels similar to this one
    – with a small cast of characters
    – mostly set in some isolated space
    the only one I came up with is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris

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