Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, July 31, 2016

1983: Idle Pleasures (Effinger, George Alec)

Only half successfully combine sports and SF (3/5)
Of course I’ve read Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy—the first two books, twice—but wasn’t terribly bowled over by the delivery of an otherwise enticing premise. The same can’t be said for Idle Pleasures as not even the premise sounded interesting, yet I still gave it a shot. The book’s rear-cover synopsis was pretty ugly:

The aliens’ first words were “Let’s play ball! [Sic: actually, the first word was “yes” and the aliens only answer yes or no]
·         Ice hockey with an entire planet for a rink
·         A chess competition where the rules change with every move
·         No-holds-barred basketball with the blue Cobae
And other stories from the Wide World of Sports by one of today’s most astonishing Masters of Imaginative Fiction

Prior to reading, my first thoughts of a science fiction collection about sports took two routes: (1) earthly sports taken to the extreme or (2) playing earthly sports with aliens. Surely, both of these types of stories are included in the collection, yet are actually the better of the eight-story bunch; respectively, “Breakaway” has enough hard science fiction to carry the weight of the sportsmanship theme while “From Downtown at the Buzzer” actually made me laugh aloud at its absurdity.

Effinger remarks upon the difficulty of combining science fiction with sports in the first story’s introduction:

Combing the two genres in one story is so formidable a challenge that unless one is truly in love with both forms, the finished product stands a good chance of cheating the reader: either the story will be a pure sports story with artificially applied science fiction gimmickry, or the story will be science fiction all the way through and the sports aspect is neither essential not relevant. The sports setting must be integral; the story should not be able to function without it. The same must be true of the science fiction—otherwise the author is not playing fair. (1)

Certainly this isn’t the best snapshot of Effinger’s short work, which might be better captured in Mixed Feelings (1974), Irrational Numbers (1976), or Dirty Tricks (1978), none of which I own.


“Naked to the Invisible Eye” (novelette, 1973) – 4/5
In South Carolina, the stadium feels bleak as the season winds down for a minor league baseball team. Some kid from Venezuela named Rudy Ramirez is pitching and no one is expecting what’s about to happen: Rudy will win the game for his team in a total of twenty-seven pitches—all strikes, no swings. The Tigers’ manager, along with everyone else, is utterly baffled, but not as much as Rudy when he’s taken off the rooster for the remaining games. A deal is soon made against Rudy’s favor as he enters the major leagues and his first game. 27 pages

“From Downtown at the Buzzer” (novelette, 1977) – 4/5
When a green-skinned, blue-suited alien arrives under the US president’s nose while answering only closed questions, the administration is left stupefied without a contingency plan. In the end, the alien and eleven other members are shifted to a remote military base in Louisiana where only one representative of the aliens continues to answer only yes/no questions. Their interests remain neutral and nebulous until they become spellbound by a basketball game. They take to it quickly to the astonishment of the soldiers, but their secret is veiled. 19 pages

“The Exempt” (novelette, 1977) – 3/5
Wanting a change from New York, Hoyt Schermerhorn and his wife up and leave to New Orleans without any foresight aside from finding a home. There, he changes his name and the two must get used to the local ways of life, including the yet-to-be-explained “alternates” that everyone else to know about. At the center of their city—their universe—they are allowed to change certain aspects of their reality according to their home’s notebook of so-called alternates. In a reality where Hoyt is stimulated by running, mythological gods are also embodied. 17 pages

“25 Crunch Split Right on Two” (novelette, 1975) – 4/5
Having been widowed at a young age, a professional football player has never truly recovered from this tragic, abrupt loss. The memory haunts him until he finds a way to relive their moments together: through the haze of pain. On the field and in scrimmage, he gives his athleticism 100% so that when the pain comes, he can re-experience the look of her eyes and the lilt of her voice. In his next game, however, he’s disappointed that he’s unable to flashback; thus, he lets his guard down a little. 21 pages

“The Pinch Hitters” (shortstory, 1979) – 3/5
When five famous science fiction writers—Sandor, Norris, Larry, Dick, and Jim—awaken after a convention to find themselves inside the bodies of major league baseball players, chaos doesn’t ensue; rather, they carefully go about their baseball lives, stay in contact with one another, and figure out what had happened. Eventually, they pin their plight on the jealous, vengeful heads of the science fiction mainstream; thus, they meet again with only science fiction in mind and only science fiction in conversation as they live as they would have, 11 pages

“Breakaway” (novelette, 1981) – 3.5/5
As if the three-square-mile ice rink weren’t enough, the players of this particular form of hockey also have to contend with near zero temperatures—zero Kelvin, The isolated rocky body offers a unusual playing surface for the workers of humdrum deep-space life who otherwise lead a terribly dull life. Zajac is one of the best players on his team and in the league. As soon as the sprint for the punk begins, he’s strategizing and skating circles—both literal and figurative—around the competition, until he’s frozen into ice with an arm that needs amputating.

“The Horse with One Leg” (shortstory, 1974) – 3.5/5
On an Ohio farm, when a foal is born with only one leg, a girl instantly sympathizes with the unfortunate animal while her father wishes to shoot it dead. Against all odds, the foal teaches itself to hop upon its single hoof, undoubtedly to the amazement of everyone. The girl even takes to riding the animal, which thoroughly impresses a retired horse breeder that wishes to purchase the horse… to “run” in the upcoming derby.
As could be expected, the sad horse gets off to a slow start, but against all odds yet again… 9 pages

“Heartstop” (novelette, 1974) – 1/5

Chlorophyll is in all products nowadays and it’s Newby who begrudgingly has to be the traveling salesman who makes the pitch to such hick towns as Gremmage, Pennsylvania. In a diner, he’s exposed—again, begrudgingly—to the town’s folk, both simple and eccentric, the most eccentric of whom is Old Man Durfee who challenges him to a game of chess. After only a few tense and commentated moves, they wrap it up for the evening and Newby retires to his room. Therein, some strange dreams occur, strange incidences happen, and strange rules are added to the chess game. 47 pages

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