Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Playing, winning and the First Dark Age of man

Recently I've been dipping into the classic First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon. It's a stunning piece of science fiction setting out a future history at massively varied scales.

If you've never read it, I won't say you should, but I'd imagine on balance you'd also get a lot out of it. You need to know only that in places it could be shocking, and might break the odd taboo, maybe even one or two that weren't necessarily obvious before reading.

Here's a passage from early on in the book that ties in with our interests and has a lot to say, even before we pass the World State of the book. That larger context also runs into the Points of Light contest running at Hill Cantons and the specifics could be relevant to a discussion going on in wargaming, one that seems now itself to be slowly fading.

The soon to be god-man of the First Dark Age is in the supreme temple of the capital.

'... You are too serious, yet not serious enough; too solemn, and all for puerile ends. You are so eager for life, that you cannot live. ... There is something else, too, which is a part of growing up - to see that life is really, after all, a game; a terribly serious game, no doubt, but none the less a game. When we play a game, as it should be played, we strain every muscle to win; but all the while we care less for winning than for the game. And we play the better for it. ...
'... once when I was up among the snow-fields and precipices of Aconcagua, I was caught in a blizzard. ... After many hours of floundering, I fell into a snow-drift. I tried to rise, but fell again and again, till my head was buried. The thought of death enraged me, for there was still so much that I wanted to do. I struggled frantically, vainly. Then suddenly - how can I put it? - I saw the game that I was losing, and it was good. Good, no less to lose than to win. For it was the game, now, not victory, that mattered. ... Here was I, acting the part of a rather fine man who had come to grief through his own carelessness before his work was done. For me, a character in the play, the situation was hideous; yet for me, the spectator, it had become excellent, within a wider excellence. ...
'... Somehow I was so strengthened by this new view of things that I struggled out of the snow-drift. And here I am once more. But I am a new man. My spirit is free. While I was a boy, I said, "Grow more alive"; but in those days I never guessed that there was an aliveness far intenser than youth's flicker, a kind of still incandescence. Is there no one here who knows what I mean? No one who at least desires this keener living? The first step is to outgrow this adulation of life itself, and this cadging obsequiousness toward Power. Come! Put it away! Break the ridiculous image in your hearts, as I now smash this idol.'


ArmChairGeneral said...

I have not read or heard of these. Thank you for showcasing them. I particularly enjoyed this narrative.

"When we play a game, as it should be played, we strain every muscle to win; but all the while we care less for winning than for the game. And we play the better for it. ..."

garrisonjames said...

Olaf Stapledon was a great writer and a profound thinker. First and Last Men is an incredible future history that could easily serve as the basis of a far flung sci-fi RPG unto itself.

Ray Rousell said...

Sounds like an epic, I'll look this one up!!

Porky said...

@ ArmChairGeneral - That spoke to me too. Very eloquently put.

@ garrisonjames - I agree with that. Vast geographic and temporal spaces crying out for exploration. What a game that would be.

@ Ray Rousell - It's an epic, without a doubt. It could be in the public domain in many places, and if so should be easy to find.