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Science Fiction Sport and Political Dreaming

Written by Derek Thiess

Keywords: sci-fi, sport, monstrosity, history, positivity


Sport: The Hunger Trap

The athletic arena is full of monsters. This belief is as old as organized sport and it is the reason that our fantastic images of sport tend toward dystopias like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy and their film adaptations. In these stories, children are selected to take part in modern-day gladiatorial games as punishment for an attempted revolution. Katniss (the protagonist) has gained her athletic abilities by hunting to feed her family, and her disdain for the decadent games is as much about its seeming pointlessness as it is about repression. In other words, as has been true since ancient Greece, the athlete is associated in this story with a lack of civic productiveness: the Hunger Games support the Totalitarian State, but the alternative is also a demand for community production. Ironically, the dominant mode of criticism in the sociology of sport is to view sports through the lens of “hegemonic masculinity,” in which men dominate others violently and sports are a proxy for war and military. But this is a trap: how can athletes be both exemplars of State violence and indifferent, unproductive citizens engaging in such anti-intellectual endeavors? As my book, Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction argues, whether an athlete, fan, casual viewer, or emo teenager like Katniss declaring your disdain for “sportsball” on social media, you are engaged in a millenia-old religio-politics that views athletes as monstrous Others.

The political nature of our reactions to sport is clearest in the public debates in which we engage. Take, for example, the ongoing debate in the U.S. about reclassifying college athletes as employees and to pay them. As this argument is parroted, especially by academics, I am reminded of just how conservative and unimaginative our approaches to education are. Rather than reflect for a moment and consider postcolonial critic Frantz Fanon’s statement that “sport should not be a game or entertainment for the urban bourgeoisie,” such arguments (painfully oblivious to the labor conditions in Universities) reveal a neoliberal bias. To borrow SF critic Mark Bould’s use of a popular meme, however, perhaps those who think making athletes into adjuncts will somehow solve their exploitation merely lack the ability to imagine something better…to imagine the potential for a “fully-automated luxury sport communism.”

The Vain Spectacle

Science fiction, and the fantastic more generally, can and has imagined better…not always, but often enough. Scholars have shown how SF’s history is inseparable from the larger capital-colonialist systems of history, but it also offers potential for reimagining histories and futures. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise offered the innovation of the holodeck (later also on Voyager and Deep Space Nine), a computer-generated alternate reality chamber in which crew members could design programs for entertainment or exercise. Commander Riker notoriously uses it for romantic trysts, but we also see Lt. Worf use it to maintain a connection to his Klingon culture. Less remembered are the many instances of crew using the holodeck to play sports, both recognizable sports such as baseball and tennis as well as fictional sports such as “Parrises Square.” In stark contrast to the dark vision of the Hunger Games, the futuristic, communal cultures of the Star Trek universe—in which basic human needs have been addressed—seem to suggest sport and exercise are important activities.

Why, then, do we not focus on these positive portrayals of sport? Why are we obsessed with athletes as monsters? Partly it is the great breadth of the history of sport and monstrosity, and partly our appraisals of sport and athletes rest not merely on political history, but also on deeply-ingrained religious attitudes toward our own bodies. In ancient Greek culture, public athletes were criticized for their apparent lack of civic interest and their vanity, their large monstrous bodies were signs that they did not engage in political life. This sentiment continued in Roman culture and was eventually adopted by Christian apologists such as Tertullian, who in his “De Spectaculis,” rails against sport spectacles as vain and idolatrous. Growing up Catholic in the Midwest U.S., I can remember several sermons directed at those in a rush to get home and watch their Sunday football games.

But we don’t have to rely on my anecdotal evidence—there are many acknowledgements across popular culture that sport and religion share (or compete for?) the same social space. Tom Brady and Michael Strahan, for example, have produced a documentary series titled The Religion of Sports, offering vignettes that compare the sport experience to spirituality. But SF, too, makes the same comparison. Scott Westerfeld, for example, in his short story “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,”describes baseball as a space colony’s “only real collective ritual” because it “had no common religion.” Monstrosity, I suggest, is a religio-political tool for Othering, for creating outsiders held apart from our societies for their frightening monstrous bodies, and as such becomes an important lens through which to view the alien/athlete.

And this topic is all about how sport and SF mutually negotiate our appraisals of bodies within a cultural and historical framework of monstrosity. Sport stages the greatest potential and the greatest vulnerabilities of our bodies, and the fantastic allows the writer to push the boundaries of each. Star Trek suggests that even our growth into a luxury space communism will be embodied—it is not, in other words, a post-human dream of transcending the body, but acknowledges the need to feed and nurture it. The Hunger Games is a reminder that we are ultimately limited in our abilities to escape oppression by these very same meat prisons. Science Fiction provides a complex vision of the potentials for sport to transcend traditional categories of Otherness and to map the visceral realities of our bodies on its pages.

Future Potentials for Futurist Sport

Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction was itself exploratory and invites revisions and updates from future scholarship. I wish, for example, that I had spent more time on disability in SF sport. Also, other genres that fall under the purview of the fantastic offer many more possibilities for critical examination. I have already written about the representation of surfing in SF/F as it coincides with the folklore of Kanaka Oiwi (native Hawaiian peoples). In such folklore and the criticism of Oiwi scholars, they offer a history of missionary colonizers nearly eradicating the sport for its apparent lewdness (practiced in little clothing) only for surfing to become a popular pastime, and now professional sport, of those very colonizers. This history forces us to reconsider even fantastic representations of such activities such as the philosophical musings of the Silver Surfer. How it must resonate with Oiwi to read about the Silver Surfer’s “tortured soul,” as he praises the “natural beauty” and “gentle climate” of the Earth that he is helping to colonize from the back of his inter-galactic surfboard. The history of religio-political Othering continues in some corners of SF.

But fantastic sport also has transgressive potential. It can inscribe our colonial past and present as the Silver Surfer does, or frighten us with an image of our repression as the Hunger Games does. But it can also, as on the holodeck, inspire us to dream with Fanon, to imagine embodied spaces that are not merely defined by traditional wisdoms, whether religious, political, or economic. The fantastic shows sport for the positive, potentially communal ideal that it offers and that we continue to deny by limiting it to something monstrous, by failing to imagine how it can help us out of the political and social systems that constrain us. In short, we create the monsters and only we can refuse to do so.

/Derek Thiess

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