I’m so, so excited to unveil What in the Worldbuilding, a new blog post series where I’m going to be discussing all things worldbuilding in stories. Because I love stories and I love worldbuilding and I love rambling about them even more.
For the first couple of posts, I’ll be talking about some elements of worldbuilding that, in my opinion, don’t get enough screen/pagetime in SFF media (and see where my brain takes things from there).
And we’re starting with sports. Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?
Okay, First of all: Sports? Who Cares?
*Slowly raises hand*
A quick “you didn’t ask for my life story but here it is anyway.” My parents are massive tennis fans and they introduced me into the sport very early, with my dad coaching in the early stages. Same thing with swimming (well, minus the coaching. My dad didn’t fare well in water and I actually ended up teaching him once I got my lifeguard license, which was a nice little pay-it-forward moment). There’s a meditative, cerebral quality to both that’s belied by their physical intensity and that lends to a deep attraction for me.
So I grew up tangled in this hopeless relationship with the two–fueled in part by the fact that I was good at them, but mostly by the fact that I just loved the hell out of them–and they’re as much a part of my identity as books. And crazy enough, I like seeing my real-life passions and experiences represented in media.
But passion isn’t required for one to understand the worldwide significance of sports. And to talk about what sports can bring to a SFF world, I think we need to look at their significance in our world.
Sports and Cultural History
Sports can tell us a lot about a culture and its history. Asian martial arts, for example, are rooted in eastern religion and philosophy. I won’t be talking about dancing in this WITW post (that’s for a later one), but it is widely considered to be a sport, and many of the modern forms we see today have their foundations in historical, traditional dances.
Everyone and their grandmother knows Canada bleeds hockey. But curling is just as strong of a national symbol here. Brought into the country by Scottish immigrants, it spread westward as the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its reach and more and more small towns began appearing on the map. So, for us, curling represents long winter months and fledgling communities coming together in solidarity and friendly competition.
The nuances are endless and the inclusion of them in a SFF world can make it so much richer.
Sports and Nationalism
Sports is one of the major drivers of national identity and what often unites entire countries together. The Olympics, for example, have become homegrounds for national pride and displays of physical prowess that somehow translates to the overall excellence of a nation. And if we look at the measures that some countries would take, and have taken, in order to stamp and seal their supremacy in these events, it becomes impossible to think of sports as mere forms of entertainment. Authoritarian regimes make use of sports to propagate their ideology in a more palatable way. And even with a democratic country like South Korea there’s an intense nationalistic fervor when it comes to sports, which I often found ugly (because it’s led to mass harassment of athletes) and at odds with the general image of the country .
So many politically-driven stories out there where juggernaut nations vie for power, and so few of them utilize sports as a form of diplomacy and a show of nationalistic strength. That seems strange to me. Whether we like it or not, sports will always be intertwined with politics–its reflection and extension–and I desperately want to see writers use that more.
Putting the political implications aside, here’s an undeniable truth:
Made-up Sports are Cool
And they become especially cool when they involve magic and future technologies and pieces of a fictional culture. I love brainstorming all the different sports that could exist in a world with a specific magic system (how, for example, Allomancy from Mistborn might translate to a competitive setting), and how they would evolve as the magic evolves.
Also, I’m attracted to the idea that punchy, flashy, dangerous forms of power can be used for more than mass weapons of war. That they can be transformed into something equally physical, but in a more positive and fun setting.
So let’s take a look at some examples of SFF sports in media. Starting with the most famous of them all…
My thoughts on J.K. Rowling most days is an intersection of “Oh god, what now” and “Please just stop,” but there’s no denying Harry Potter has become an indelible foundation for modern pop culture and a well of inspiration for many, many writers. Since its inception, magical schools have become a staple of fantasy.
So what surprises me is that the series hasn’t also ushered in a wave of magical sports in fantasy. I mean, Quidditch is such an important part of the HP world. As a bastardization of soccer–sorry, “football”–and other real world sports, it offers familiarity alongside high octane speed and the thrill of microviolence, with an unexpected sweetness to the idea of players protecting teammates from homicidal balls (aka bludgers). It’s brilliantly constructed.
And fans love it so much they turned it into an actual international sport.
(Fun fact: I joined my university’s Quidditch club during undergrad and played for a couple of sessions before deciding that running around and inadvertently crashing into people with a stick between my legs was bound to send me to the hospital at some point.)
So why don’t we see more Quidditches in fictional worlds? If there’s room for intricate magic systems and made-up history that goes back thousands of years, surely there’s room for more inventive forms of sports that go beyond gladiatorial combat and racing.
Speaking of which….
Racing — Lots and Lots of Racing
Racing is probably the most common one you’ll find in these stories. And with a simple format that allows for such a wide breadth of customization, it’s not hard to see why. Swap a horse with a giant yellow bird, or a car with a small flying vehicle, and you have yourself a made-up sport that’s unique enough to engage and entertain but doesn’t require a lot of meticulous ground-up writing.
Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a somewhat recent sci-fi book that features racing. Via race cars, specifically, which might seem pretty mundane if you don’t count the fact that they require magic to operate.
The Gentleman Bastards
I’m going to be talking more about The Gentleman Bastards in future WITW posts because Lynch does a lot of small yet effective things with his worldbuilding that add an incredible amount of depth to the series.
And The Lies of Lock Lamora is the one example I can think of that features sports with regional and class distinction.
Let’s take the Teeth Show, a gladiatorial sport unique to Camorr in which female fighters, and only female fighters, go head-to-head with leaping sharks. It’s a grisly, gaudy show of acrobatics and power, and while it’s enjoyed by the poor and rich and everyone in between, there’s a distinct middle to upper class flavour to it–aristocrats and merchants watching from their boats, sipping wine and conducting business while the fight plays out in the background. The luxury of partaking in violence without actually partaking in violence.
Then there’s Handball, which is a team sport played by the lower classes of southern Therin. There’s nothing showy or magical about handball (it’s pretty similar to our world’s version), and we never actually see any of the characters playing it, but what I love about it is that it comes with its own little history of origin and an allegory that may or may not be true but still serves as a valuable lesson for the audience (i.e. when it comes to revenge, either have a long memory or don’t procrastinate). That’s what makes it unique to this world.
The teeth show and handball serve three purposes: they add layers to the worldbuilding, they entertain the readers, and, perhaps most importantly, they tie in with the story that is being told, making it richer and more dynamic.
So why do sports get overlooked?
Let’s put on our speculation hats, shall we?
Possibility 1: SFF writers aren’t sports fans.
I’ll scribble in a big fat “REJECTED” for this one. The idea that geeks and sports don’t mesh is an outdated one, and I know for a fact that there are writers who are also sports fans. That being said, I’ve yet to meet another SFF nerd who also plays and watches tennis. But statistically speaking they have to be out there somewhere (and I will find you).
Possibility 2: SFF writers enjoy sports, but not enough to be comfortable and interested in writing about them.
…Maybe? At least, I’m sure it applies to some writers.
Possibility 3: Sports isn’t something people consciously associate with SFF stories
When we see “sci-fi and fantasy,” we immediately think space battles and gods and dragons and political intrigue and quests to save the world. Maybe sports just don’t cross people’s minds. And maybe people feel, especially with linear stories, there just isn’t room to showcase an activity that’s meant to be for recreation and competition. Not when there are life-or-death events brewing around every corner.
Possibility 4: Lack of a solid foundation for sports in SFF stories
I don’t know, maybe if Tolkien and Lewis and all those other classic SFF authors had included made-up sports in their stories, we’d see more of them today.
Possibility 5: A combination of multiple factors (including the ones above)
Probably a lazy answer but also probably the best of the bunch.
The thing is, I’m really not sure what deters writers from including sports in their worlds. It’s not like I can snap my fingers and pin the problem on societal hangups or prejudices. Sports is…sports. Innocuous (for the most part), exciting, and popular in the real world but not so much in fictional ones, evidently.
And I don’t know about you, but I would really like to see that changed.