Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game, published in 1981, is a pre-Internet era exploration of role-playing games and their effect on the human psyche, which won the 1981 Nebula and the 1982 Hugo awards for best novella.
On an eight-year long voyage to Saturn, one of the more popular ways for the crew and colonists to pass time is becoming involved in psychodramas, a verbal-type role-playing game. But when a team of four people from the spaceship lands their smaller craft on Saturn’s moon Iapetus to explore the terrain, the terrain reminds three of them so strongly of the Tolkien-esque fantasy that they have spent countless hours creating and imagining that it begins to affect their judgment and discernment. Bad decisions start to cascade as fantasy impinges on their exploratory mission on Iapetus. The fourth team member warns them:
You played the game, year after year, until at last the game started playing you. That’s what’s going on this minute, no matter how you rationalize your motives.
The psychodrama game is a little old-fashioned for a SF work, reflective of the early 80’s origin of the story. Rather than being an online multi-player game or even a LARP (live action role playing) type of game, “psychodrama” seems to consist mostly of people sitting around and verbally interacting to create a fantasy story. In real life, people can spend inordinate amounts of time and money on role-playing games, both online and the live-action type, and sometimes the time they spend on these games interferes with their real lives. But this novella ups the ante: What if the players are intelligent, imaginative scientists and colonists, stuck on a spaceship for several years, with little else to occupy their attention but a mental game, in which they play exciting heroes, wizards and adventurers battling elves, giants and dragons? And what if Iapetus has amazing, eldritch landscapes, with gorgeous ice formations that remind them of the magical kingdoms of their imagination?
When does fantasy start to become confused with reality?
Anderson cleverly weaves the characters’ fantasy world into reality by using italics (shown in bold below) to indicate when their imaginations have taken over and they are speaking or thinking as their fantasy personas.
Above the highest ledge reared a cliff too sheer to scale, Iapetan gravity or no, the fortress wall. However, from orbit the crew had spied a gouge in the vicinity, forming a pass, doubtless plowed by a small meteorite in the war between the gods and the magicians, when stones chanted down from the sky wrought havoc so accursed that none dared afterward rebuild. That was an eerie climb, hemmed in by heights which glimmered in the blue twilight they cast, heaven narrowed to a belt between them where stars seemed to blaze doubly brilliant.
There are four chapters in The Saturn Game, each beginning with a quote from an imaginary scholarly dissertation written after the events of this story. These quasi-scholarly quotes add an additional layer of depth to the story, as humanity tries to figure out how things went wrong on Iapetus and what should be done to prevent it from reoccurring.
Poul Anderson has created an intriguing mix of the character’s internal and external realities, when fantasy and reality start to blur. The Saturn Game feels somewhat old-fashioned after almost thirty-five years, but the questions it poses still resonate.