Science Fictional Olympics

Another retro review and, oddly, a relatively popular one.

This one is from September 24, 2000.

My older, wiser self would no longer say 1984 was “the height of the Cold War”. Better candidates would be the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or 1983 when Yuri Andropov almost nuked us because of, among other things, activity in meat packing plants.

And wrestling promoters did start their own football league — the short-lived XFL.

Review: Science Fictional Olympics: Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #2: , eds. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles Waugh, 1984.

Olympic contests between the Soviet bloc and America were often exploited for propaganda purposes, the outcome of an athletic event supposedly saying something significant about the victor’s country. This 1984 anthology, from the height of the Cold War, has several stories built around that notion.Science Fictional Olympics

Tom Sullivan’s “The Mickey Mouse Olympics” and Nicholas V. Yermakov’s “A Glint of Gold” both feature Soviet and American Olympic athletes genetically modified for their events. Sullivan plays the notion for genuine laughs. Yermakov’s story is much more serious and shows the price the competitors pay as propaganda pawns. He also works in a defection subplot.

Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” abandons all together the notion of mere symbolic combat in the Olympics. In his future, the USSR and USA each put 100 man combat teams into the arena, and they don’t come out till one side is annihilated. It’s all televised, of course. Moudy is not content to just do a story of future gladiatorial matches. He also delves into what the combat conditioning does to the soldier, what kind of person it produces. It isn’t idle speculation, either, because all the survivors of an Olympic War Game get to do whatever they want with no legal sanctions. It’s one of the highpoints of the anthology.

Not all of the stories deal with future Olympics; the general theme is competition.

In the case of the dentist in Piers Anthony “Getting Through University”, basis for his novel Prostho Plus, the competition is to get accepted to galactic University, School of Dentistry. Anthony creates an entertaining story out of the complexities of dentistry on the galaxy’s aliens.

Other highpoints are Norman Spinrad’s “The National Pastime”, “The Wind from the Sun” by Arthur C. Clarke, and “Prose Bowl” from the team of Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. Spinrad’s story tells of the invention of Combat Football and its fans very violent enthusiasm for it. It’s a 1973 story but hasn’t dated that much, especially since wrestling promoters now talk of starting their own football league. Clarke’s story combines hard science and melancholy in a solar sail race. Also titled “Sunjammer”, it was probably the first story to use the idea of solar sails. “Prose Bowl” makes hack writing into an hilarious spectator sport, but it also says some serious things about writers and their audiences.

On the decidely low end of the anthology are Jack Vance’s “The Kokod Warriors”, about aliens who fight elaborate combats and the humans who bet on them, and Charles Nuetzel’s “A Day for Dying”, one of those stories with a decadent society of televised bloodsports and an unconvincing revolution to topple it. George Alec Effinger’s “From Downtown at the Buzzer”, about some aliens fascination with basketball, is marred by a vague ending.

In the entertaining-but-nothing-special category are the rest of the anthology’s works. George R.R. Martin’s “Run to Starlight” has aliens playing football against humans. The aliens turn out to have a more realistic view of the games’ ultimate significance than the humans. Bob Shaw’s “Dream Fighter” is another one of those stories where combatants assault each other mentally with horrifying symbols. Suzette Haden Elgin’s “For the Sake of Grace” is a feminist story about a poetry contest on a world with an Arab-type culture and the young girl who dares to enter it despite the horrifying consequences of failing. Robert Sheckley’s “The People Trap” is a witty, grim tale of a race for land in an overpopulated world. “Why Johnny Can’t Speed” by Alan Dean Foster is another combat on the highways story. It was possibly a response to Harlan Ellison’s classic “Along the Scenic Route”. “Nothing in the Rules” by L. Sprague de Camp is about the chaos caused by a mermaid entering a swimming match. “The Olympians” by Mike Resnick is not, despite the title, a future Olympics tale. The Olympians are an elite group of humans who specialize in humiliating aliens in athletic competitions.

There are enough good stories here to justify taking a look at this anthology.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

3 thoughts on “Science Fictional Olympics

  1. Joachim Boaz July 2, 2022 / 4:44 pm

    I went ahead and bought this anthology as I thought some more might have media themes. While you disliked it, I am eager to read Charles Nuetzel’s “A Day for Dying” for my series.

    Glad you enjoyed the Moudy as well! It’s a solid story and it’s a shame he didn’t write more.

    • Joachim Boaz July 2, 2022 / 4:46 pm

      Ah, and Suzette Haden Elgin’s “For the Sake of Grace” forms the prologue of her very average novel At the Seventh Level (1972) (reviewed on my site). I remember enjoying the previously published prologue far more than the rest.

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