(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 7 (variant title: Best SF: 1973) (1974), ed. Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss)
4.5/5 (Very Good)
I am (generally) not a fan of sports. I am a fan of science fiction about sports. More specifically, I’m a proponent of sports as a SF vehicle for social commentary on commercialism, trauma, alienation, and violence. One of the more successful I’ve encountered so far might be William Harrison’s “Roller Ball Murder” (1973) — it easily joins the sports SF hall of fame along with George Alec Effinger’s “25 Crunch Split Right on Two” (1975), a harrowing account of an NFL player seeking hard (and damaging) hits to trigger lucid memories of his wife, and Robert Sheckley’s violent “The Prize of Peril” (1958), a reality TV show with human players.
“The game, the game: here we go again. All glory to it, all things I am and own because of Roller Ball Murder” (77). Jonathan E. is the core player for Houston—the game: everything spinning around a track, ebonite balls careening at outrageous speeds, skaters blocking runners, bikers swooping in to help runners, forty men trying not to be maimed, playing for glory (whatever that might mean)… The teams—the world’s largest corporations: “ENERGY, TRANSPORT, FOOD, HOUSING, SERVICES, LUXURY” (83).
And Jonathan E. is the best Roller Ball player despite the evolution of the game, for as the “years pass […] the rules alter—always in favor of greater crowd-pleasing carnage” (79). Rumors circulate of games with no time limits, mixed teams involving “tear-away jerseys” (79), and even blows designed to kill… And Jonathan E. keeps on playing as the violence careens, and as he ages he remembers his youth, and the people that really mattered, and how little power he really has despite his position of privilege and esteem. The little bits of dystopic reality that poke through suggest his position on an island, a totem placed high for the adoring masses, masses which need the sport to assuage their harsh realities. The killing blow will come soon enough: “their goddamned ganglia. Bunch of nerves right underneath the ear. Drive their jawbones into that mess of nerves and it’ll ring their bells sure” (89).
Harrison’s delicate paralleling of Jonathan E.’s slow realization of his place in the world and a sport whose rules change privileging more and more violence, adds momentum and intensity to the story. As Jonathan looses control of what happens on the track he gains awareness of the reality of the world around him. And most disturbingly, as Jonathan looses control of what happens on the track he also looses his certainty about his place in the world—and how his struggle on the track of colliding violence of ebonite and man is still the only way he can find meaning….. Jonathan E. laments, as he prepares for a game (his last?): “it’s true that history is really gone, that we have no families or touchstones, that our short personal lives alone judge us” (94). And with this realization, Jonathan returns to the track… The story starts where it begins, the circuit complete, Jonathan’s proclamation that “All things I am and own because of Roller Ball Murder” (77) rings loud and true.
It’s a beautiful story in its simplicity and intensity. There’s a refreshing artistry of language and structure. Recommended.
I recently watched Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Harrison’s short story—Rollerball (1975)—and was pleasantly surprised. Of course it was filled with problems and corny sequences and some suspiciously bland acting from James Caan who admitted he “couldn’t do much with the character” of Jonathan E…. But, perhaps due to Harrison’s careful screenplay adaptation of his own short story or the film’s attempt at reflection and meaningful commentary (as well as high-flying action sequences) created a worthwhile viewing experience. I’ll re-watch Rollerball (1975) over most other 70s SF films created before or around 1975—Logan’s Run (1976), Silent Running (1972), The Omega Man (1971), THX 1138 (1971), Westworld (1973), The Andromeda Strain (1972), and even Soylent Green (1973).
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(Still from the 1975 film, 1975 UK edition)