Speculative fiction: It’s all in the game

To keep this post within a reasonable length, I’ll only deal with novels. In a later post, I’ll talk about other types of fictions.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: all fiction is speculative fiction, because all fiction answers that most important question, WHAT IF?

We could also argue that all fiction is a kind of game. People have speculated about this at length. Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, in his ground-breaking Homo Ludens (1938), argued that a key component of human culture and humanity in general is a sense of play. He’s careful to point out that we’re not the only creatures who play. Ask any dog. Ask any cat. Ask any. . .you get the picture.

Never let it be said this blog doesn’t shamelessly purvey CUTE CAT PICTURES. (Thanks to photographer Ryan Maguire, who made this photo free for commercial use through Pixabay.com.)

The French scholar Roger Callois is another who has written a lot about games, the human sense of play, and how any piece of fiction is actually playing an elaborate game with its reader/viewer/consumer in any medium. The books of Huzinga and Callois are classics of game design, game theory, and the examination of human culture.

Well, it’s above my pay grade to talk about any of this sensibly, but I can give you a list and some mini-reviews of fictions about games and fictions based on games and gaming. How meta is that? Some fascinating novels (and other fictions) are games ABOUT games. Love it.

Here are a few classic works of literary fiction that use games:

Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson’s) Alice in Wonderland–the card games! the croquet!

Illustration by John Tenniel, image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or think about Nobel Prize-winning novelist Herman Hesse’s celebrated speculative fiction, The Glass Bead Game (aka Magister Ludi), 1943.

There are lots of other examples.

But on to some more contemporary ones.

First off, let me mention the YA Elephants in the Room (so much has been said and written about them that I don’t have much to add, except just to note them as main examples of game-based speculative fiction):

Harry Potter! Quiddich, anyone? Quiddich even has its own book now, and the game permeates the entire lengthy series.

The Hunger Games! Suzanne Collins’s 2008 YA dystopian novel about teenagers forced into gladiatorial battles to the death is not as big a force as Harry Potter, but pretty darn big.

Find it on Amazon.

I might add Veronica Roth’s YA dystopian powerhouse, Divergent (2011), as well, with its game-like trials of strength and battle-readiness (ziplining down the Sears Tower, etc.).

Find it on Amazon.

All three of these powerhouses of YA fiction have spawned entire industries, Harry Potter more successfully than the other two: sequels, movies, games (naturally!). I wouldn’t call the Harry Potter books great writing, not in the mold of Lewis, Tolkien, L’Engle, and Pullman, but the Potter books are really good, and if I had been ten or eleven when they first came out, I would have been in line at the bookstore, at midnight, with my wizard cap and wand. I can admit it. Both The Hunger Games and Divergent were good YA novels. I enjoyed them. The others in each of those two trilogies were a sad come-down, though.

Here’s another gamer YA novel:

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2012). The hype labeled this novel “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix,” and I have to confess, between that and the lackluster reviews given the movie, I was prepared to dislike it. Instead, I loved it! It’s a fun read. (I should mention that other readers have hated it. Here’s an interesting take on why. ) I’ve read too many books that seem to be influenced by the dreary slog of MMORPG players moving from one level to the next to the next to the next (dreary if you’re just hearing about it or reading about it, I should say. PLAYING it, on the other hand. . . but that’s a subject for another post). Sure enough, that’s how the book begins.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, has nothing irl (in real life), pretty much. He lives in a 2045 grimy dystopian city in a world where just about everything has become grimy and broken down. His family can only afford a broken-down trailer stacked with hundreds of others in a creaky skyscraper of the things, and they’re always collapsing and killing all the residents. Online, though, he is a god of the OASIS, the online game he inhabits when he’s not crouched in his trailer-slum. Wade and his friends have to find a treasure hidden by a deceased eccentric game developer and billionaire. Whoever finds it first gets the dead game developer’s many billions. But our heroes are in a race to get to it before an evil cabal of technocrats do–and those people have the means and the lack of morals to cheat. If the technocrats get to it, dystopia will become even drearier and more dysfunctional than it already is. So the stakes are high, and the adolescent heroes are engaging and realistic. I really loved how their avatars (thank you, Neal Stephenson) don’t match up with their real selves, and how they deal with this mismatch. Anyone who has ever played an MMORPG will know what I mean. Lotta drama there. And for a hilarious take on that, see the comic YouTube series, The Guild. Even though it’s about my least-favorite MMORPG, World of Warcraft (don’t hate), and even though it’s a bit dated, it’s still spot on.

Find it on Amazon.

But gamer culture and gamer topics are not just a YA writer’s trope. They function brilliantly in novels written for adults, some of the most sophisticated in the speculative fiction genres.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). A hugely important work of speculative fiction that has influenced our real-world attitudes toward spending a lot of our time in the meta-universe of role-playing games, especially MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). In Stephenson’s vision of the future, most people spend a lot of their lives inhabiting this metaverse, and the frantic chase to save the world from oligarchic controllers of technology takes place half-in the “real world,” half in the metaverse, where the Japanese sword-wielding protagonist (named, amusingly, Hiro Protagonist) joins forces with a spunky skate boarder to thwart the baddies. This novel has been described as dystopia, as SF, as cyberpunk (deriving from fictions like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the works of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, etc.). Snow Crash, in its turn, has spawned works like the Matrix film franchise, and–come to think of it–Ready Player One. Snow Crash is brilliantly written. At one point, I thought the (mostly) failed online experiment Second Life would carry out Stephenson’s ideas, but so far, nothing so extreme has happened. Only a matter of time? Meanwhile, Stephenson has written other novels, has worked on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin project, has influenced titans of technology, coined the word “metaverse,” used the word “avatar” in a computing context for the first time. . .he is a force, and so is this novel. Be warned if you like your fiction straightforward. It’s very. . .um. . .meta.

Find it at Amazon.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003). Atwood is best known, of course, for The Handmaid’s Tale. That entire novel is actually a puzzle for the reader to put together, so the book is its own kind of game. Another of her dystopian novels, Oryx and Crake, lesser known but equally excellent, equally prescient, actually has a plot which turns on a game that two of the main characters have played since boyhood. The game becomes deadly when one of the characters, a gamer boy-genius, begins taking it all too seriously as he moves into his adult life’s work for a sinister corporation.

Find it at Amazon.

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988)

This novel, the second in Banks’s Culture series, is one of the best SF novels I’ve ever read. One of the best novels I’ve read, period. Banks is a brilliant writer. I was first introduced to his non-SF avatar (!), Iain Banks without the middle initial, the writer of realistic novels, through his great, great novel The Crow Road. (Who wouldn’t love a novel that begins, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”?) But of course I had to see what he was like when he turned to speculative fiction. The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, grabbed me and didn’t let go. That book, too, is all about playing games, especially a kind of gladiatorial high-stakes poker. The Player of Games, the second in the series, is just as compelling. The main character is a skilled player of a chess-like game played throughout the galaxy, but when he is chosen to join a major game competition, he becomes a pawn in an intergalactic contest of hardball politics, and the twisty plot, great characterization, and superb writing left me breathless. (The novels in the series are set in the same universe but aren’t sequels, exactly, so you can read them out of order.)

Find it at Amazon.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (1985). This Nebula- and Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel is well-known to SF readers, and the main character, Ender, succeeds through his game-playing skills, so I’m including it here despite my personal dismay over its author. The novel is an interesting and absorbing read, lauded, translated, and adapted into other media. Card wrote several sequels. The book has also generated quite a bit of controversy for its stance on violence, and its author has generated quite a bit of controversy himself, mostly over his well-publicized views on homosexuality.

THESE ARE ALL NOVELS ABOUT GAMING, OR NOVELS THAT PROCEED AS A GAME, OR BOTH. (By the way–for the linguistic games it plays, can we add China Miéville’s matchless Embassytown?) But there are other types of game-inspired novels within speculative fiction.

Apparently, some very successful fantasy and SF has been prompted by fantasy games the authors have played. I’ve heard these mentioned:

  • Scott Lynch’s wonderful The Lies of Locke Lamora
  • Leviathan Wakes, by the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing as James S. Corey (I much prefer Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet, but that’s just me)
  • Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle

I’m sure there are others.


I haven’t read any of it, so I can’t comment. But here’s an informative blog post about some of the important books in the genre, so I’ll leave you with that. Even if you disagree about some of these books, this list looks like a good place to start if you want to sample the genre.

Other game-related literary fiction: These aren’t classified as speculative fiction, but I’ll mention them anyway: Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit (chess); W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (baseball; the novel on which the film Field of Dreams was based); Nathan Hill’s The Nix (mmorpgs). And a whole section of Alexander Pope’s great 18th century mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock, is based on a game of ombre (a card game popular among society people in Pope’s time).

(note to readers of this blog–if some mysterious thing shows up here about “premium content,” ignore it. It has intruded itself into my blog, and I have no idea how to get rid of it, try as I might.)

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