Underground Reading: Rollerball by William Harrison
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Rollerball (1975) is a collection of a dozen short stories by William Harrison.
Although headlined by the now-infamous Roller Ball Murder, most of the stories are not even science fiction - which must have come as a surprise to innocent buyers. The stories show a progression into the 'dark woods' (as the author puts it in his introduction), culminating in the apocalyptic title story.
The works range from 1968 to 1973. The earliest is "The Pinball Machines", Harrison's charmingly nostalgic recounting of his father's old barbershop, his father's old pinball machines, and, most importantly, his father's old-fashioned sense of honor. The other early inclusion is "The Hermit", a tale of redemption in the snow-bound wilds of Montana.
After these two, things start to get a little bleak.
"The Blurb King" recounts how a savvy businessman has profited by reducing human interaction into a few computer-generated catch-phrases. "The Good Ship Erasmus" is an existential thriller, told from the point of view of the only cigarette smuggler on a cruise ship intended to stamp out the nasty habit of smoking.
Several other stories are written in a similar vein - people bleakly looking for meaning in activities either mundane ("Eating it", "Weatherman", "A Cook's Tale"), esoteric ("Down The Blue Hole") or lethal ("The Arsons of Desire"). Futile or successful, the search is invariably destructive.
The best story - hilarious cover-art and movie-tie-in aside/forgiven - is definitely "Roller Ball Murder". Despite the brilliance of his dystopian detail, Harrison doesn't make the flaw of getting bogged down in detailed world-building, and keeps the story about the character and the message. Evil corporations may rule a post-Armageddon world, but, essentially, this is still about a man, locked into the prison of his life, searching for a meaning that constantly eludes him. That said, like Ender's Game, the ends may have inadvertently outshone the means, as Jonathan E's ennui is less glamorous than his day job of dodging 300 mph cannonballs and killing people in a modified form of lethal lacrosse.
Although "Roller Ball Murder" is the highlight of the collection, the other stories came as pleasant surprises. Rollerball is an excellent book that freely crosses between (and rises above) genres.
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