Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle

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Translated by David Carter

Review by Annabel Gaskell

While Desperate Games is not a great work of literature, it is a book that is BIG on ideas. This philosophical satire on science, politics and psychology of the masses must have seemed quite daring when originally published in 1971. Are you intrigued yet?

I was, especially once I found out that Pierre Boulle is celebrated for two novels in particular – both of which were developed into Oscar-winning films. Actually, I never realised that the movies, Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Planet of the Apes (1968) came from novels at all! So, when offered the chance to read a new translation of another of Boulle’s novels, I was rather keen, especially as it is a dystopian vision of a near future…

Put simply, the world is descending into chaos, consumed by materialism and self-interest. The best scientists from many nations, stage a peaceful coup with the help of all the living Nobel prize-winners, to take over the world in the name of science. They want to eliminate the world’s problems by replacing politics with science and in bringing down the barriers, make the role of heads of state no longer needed.

What was perhaps most surprising about the scientific revolution was the ease and rapidity of its success, to such an extent that its developers found themselves confronted sooner than expected with a mass of details which had not yet been studied. Mrs Betty Han’s prediction had been correct: at the start of the twenty-first century, more or less all over our planet, the leaders had become tired of governing, exhausted by their sterile efforts to resolve problems which were beyond their competence, and all the peoples of the world had a vague awareness of the situation. The letter from the Nobels arrived just at the right moment and the evidence contained in it impressed everybody.

The Nobels had staged a contest between the best scientists to become head of the new world order. Fawell, an American physicist won; Yranne, a French mathematician and psychologist Mrs Han from China tied for runner up. Together they set about solving world hunger and curing cancer – and they’re successful. It isn’t long however, before indicators show that people are no longer enjoying life so much and the suicide rate is going up alarmingly. Giving folk more leisure time and eliminating risk from their lives doesn’t make for happy bunnies.

The world was suffering from melancholy. And the suicides were a direct consequence of this condition. The enormous amount of leisure time, which was the consequence of the rationalisation of work, had not itself been properly organised. …
…the former sport competitions between national teams, which had previously aroused general enthusiasm, had disappeared with the demise of nations. Nothing replaced them. The instinct for play, which psychology considered to be one of the most powerful ones in human beings, had thus been despised.

Betty and her department of Psychology come up with a plan. To engage the populace again, they will stage a daring new entertainment involving gladiatorial battles – to the death! There is no shortage of volunteers to take part, the games are a huge success, the suicide rate drops and people are happier – but for how long?

You can see that it’s going to escalate, can’t you. How will it end? Well, that would be telling!

But I can also hear many of your brains’ cogs whirring – these gladiatorial combats – they sound awfully like The Hunger Games, don’t they? I have no idea if Suzanne Collins was inspired by this novel and, yes – of course there are some similarities in the games themselves, at least at first – but their raison d’être is different. The Hunger Games features a corrupt government who institutes the games to keep the masses in their place, and Desperate Games has a theoretically non-corrupt government who devises the games to … keep the masses in their place.

Desperate Games is not a long novel – less than two hundred pages. It does take a long time to really get going though. In the first section we meet the scientists who will compete to become the leader of the Scientific World Government and the two faction leaders of the living Nobels. Boulle also details the contest fairly exhaustively. The coup doesn’t actually happen until page 63 – nearly a third of the way into the novel. The games don’t make their appearance until page 120. Thus, the majority of the novel isn’t about the games as you might hope from the blurb, but the philosophy behind the scientists’ world view. As you might expect, there is a strong rivalry between the physicists and the biologists – with the chemists sitting on the fence – but they are united in their belief that science is the answer to everything.

The whole scientific revolution went so smoothly, it was hard to believe it happened just like that. It’s as if Boulle was so full of other ideas, he didn’t want to think about that bit. I never really engaged with Fawell or the other scientists either, they were all national caricatures for the most part, although the wily Betty was a force to be reckoned with.

I get a feeling, having read a quotation from an earlier English edition of this novel, that parts of it might have been hard to translate. The first half of the novel is a little stilted in parts – the other quotation I read was even more so, thus I assume that was Boulle’s writing, but it certainly got going and easier to read later on.

In summary, there are many clever ideas in this novel, but the pacing was all wrong for me, (or did I just want to get to the games bit?!). So, whilst I can’t recommend it in true Shiny New Books fashion as a great novel to read, I can recommend it as a fascinating curiosity and worth reading for that!

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Pierre Boulle (trans. David Carter), Desperate Games (Hesperus, London, 2014) 978-1843915355, paperback, 201 pages.

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