Book Review: Killerbowl, Gary K. Wolf (1975)

(Steve Marcesi’s cover for the 1975 edition)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

“The Minutemen’s hidden safety, crouching on the fifteenth floor of the Fontana West apartments, puts cross hairs on Gradington’s Adam’s apple, now even so slightly exposed just below the bottom of his bulletproof helmet and mask, just above the top of his body armor, and squeezes the trigger (5).”

In some ways SF comparisons between modern sports and Roman arenas, where blood and guts are spilled in obligatory fashion, might come off as a soft target. Imagine if the football players had knives! Pass. Imagine if one of the players had a gun! Double pass. Yes, we know sports can be violent and taxing on the mind and body. A quick browse through the current NFL injury list and articles such as The Boston Globe‘s six-part series on Aaron Hernandez makes grim and disturbing reading (researched only for this post). And adding levels of violence and trauma to an already splattered playing field is a predictable avenue of SF speculation. Predictable yet relentlessly fascinating in the hands of a talented author….

As I mentioned in my review of William Harrison’s fantastic “Roller Ball Murder” (1973) — “I’m a proponent of sports as a SF vehicle for social commentary on commercialism, trauma, alienation, and violence.” Gary K. Wolfe’s Killerbowl successfully ticks all the boxes while simultaneously providing a driving narrative–the countdown (in non-linear fashion) towards Super Bowl XXI (1987).

Analysis/Plot Summary

[note: It’s been a few months since I read the book. My review is not as detailed or analytical as normal. My apologies]

T. K. Mann is an old man. Let’s back up a bit — Mann, the quarterback of the San Francisco Prospectors, is old by football standards, especially in a future version of the sport involving body armor, bullets, and gameplay across evacuated city blocks (homefield advantage takes on a whole new meaning). A new breed of quarterback has entered the fray—Harv Matison, of the New England Minutemen. While Mann attempts to limit the casualties accrued on the field, Harv sacrifices his players willy-nilly, and with every uptick in his death stats, his legions of adoring fans multiple….  He embodies the direction football audiences crave–longer games, more guns, more deaths. A showdown is imminent. Mann wants revenge. Harv wants carnage.

Far more sinister powers are at play. Pierce Spenser, the president of the league, will do anything to achieve the highest ratings possible (the International Broadcasting Company as world power) even if it means rigging the games by feeding Harv information. The collision between Mann and Harv is inevitable as, to steal and rework the painful sports commentary phrase, “the season really has been scripted.”

Final Thoughts

Three elements of Killerbowl elevate the novel above similar sports-themed SF I’ve enjoyed—1) the narrative 2) the structure 3) the visual and societal details.

Joachim Boaz praising narrative? Even I fall victim to an empathetic underdog story if the novel is well-wrought and inventive. The most fascinating part of the novel is Mann’s decision to continue to play the game despite his discovery of Spenser’s tricks. A game within a game….

It takes a few moments before the structure of the novel, a series of flashbacks to moments in time before the Super Bowl, syncs into comprehensible formation. In many ways the reader keys into “sports time,” counting down towards the days and months before “the big game” or identifying a character’s narrative as in dialogue with the “moment” that defines the season and, by extension, the book. This is a brilliant choice.

Wolf’s visual touches, maps of the Boston playing field and team lineups, add surprising complexity to the story. Take a minute to examine the two images [click the scan to enlarge].

Notice the characters who did not play college football…. An important point for the “new breed” of player!

If I’m not mistaken, this is and was an incredibly wealthy area of Boston…. evacuated to play a sport.

Other details combine deftly with the narrative structure—for example, quotes from pseudo-scholarly articles (paid for by the IBC), news blurbs, sections from the perspective of the fans, etc. Wolf certainly does not engage in the John Brunner brand of cultural deluge à la Stand on Zanzibar (1968), but intersperses these fragments at opportune moments to add detail and complexity.

Killerbowl (1975) succeeds as an exemplar of sports SF, and inventive 70s SF more broadly. Wolf manages to be experimental yet readable, direct in prose yet lyrical. New Wave SF distilled into a shot glass, a punch to the gut filled with intensity and mood. Highly recommended.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Killerbowl, Gary K. Wolf (1975)

  1. As I recall, at the time the cover seemed awful (it still does to me) and the book appeared on a par with exploitative ‘Skinhead’ novels, etc. that had been a fad here a few years before.

    • Which one? The UK edition? But yes, neither edition has a brilliant cover — and the US edition doesn’t even seem to fit very neatly in the aesthetic that Doubleday was trying to achieve….

  2. The Doubleday cover just seems downright ugly, but that aside, the book could almost be a metaphor for today’s politics. One side playing for the sake of pure blood and carnage while being owned by a predatory weasel who cares about nothing but attention and money (i. e. ratings). It should be noted that Games Workshop/The Black Library did a series of books in the Blood Bowl universe in which the violence was way over-the-top. And no, I haven’t read any.

    • Well, it’s a FAR more complicated book than the cover suggests. Hopefully my review made that clear!

      (Those don’t seem interesting to me. Again, this succeeds not due to any violent content but the ingenious structure, the distillation of New Wave experimentation into a narrative-driven package that is thought-provoking and moving)

  3. That was my impression – that the books should be read in order; it’s been more than ten years now, so I’ve forgotten, but I seem to recall the first couple of books following in sequence. I don’t think I read more than the first two, however. I’m pretty awful with starting and not completing series. 😦 Unless it’s a trilogy.

    • I got an Abe book (most recent acquisition post), that sounds even cooler than Inter Ice Age 4 (no pun intended)….. Takes place in a giant underground hospital.

      I read Pavane a while back but never got around to reviewing it. I enjoyed it!

  4. It’s been so long! Wow. I appreciate this review. I have to start Googling and track down a copy. And I feel it won’t be cheap.

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