Transhuman and Subhuman Part VII: The Glory Game

glory game

Today I’m reviewing John C. Wright’s review of Keith Laumer’s short novel The Glory Game.

“The novel is well crafted, concise, without a wasted scene or word,” says Wright, “and therefore has the clearest and most trenchant point of any tale I have ever read that is actually a tale and not a tract.”

Indeed, the book’s twist ending is incisively delivered in its last four words. Since The Glory Game was first published in 1973, this review will discuss the plot under the reasonable assumption that little risk remains of spoiling the final twist for long time sci-if fans. For those who are newly come to the fold, it’s recommended that you read the novel before continuing with this post.

Of the book’s characters, Wright notes that they are, “…rough sketches, painted in broad, energetic strokes, as befits an adventure yarn.” Yet the story’s driving conflict is moral; not military–the dilemma of a principled man told to violate his principles.

Due to the nature of its main conflict, its chandleresque style, and its dark tone, The Glory Game can rightly be called a noir story.

The point of a Noir story is that the world holds out nothing worth doing, but the tarnished knight, no longer unstained white, carries out his ideals, despite all this. [T]he ideals are dead but were not foolish, and a man lives up to them out of a sense of melancholy respect for their memory…like saluting the flag of a sunken Atlantis.”

Wright examines the novel’s three acts to show how efficiently the story structure serves the plot.

The prologue introduces two main characters: Commodore Tancredi Dalton, the main protagonist, and his fiancee Arianne Kelvin, the daughter of a powerful senator. The first act presents a microcosm of the whole story when Dalton intervenes in a nightclub brawl between servicemen and civilians. His refusal to play favorites alienates both sides, leading Arianne to question his political acumen. Dalton answers that one must do what is right, no matter the personal cost.

Following the nightclub incident, Dalton is assigned to a key position in a war game meant to intimidate the Hukk, a technologically inferior but highly aggressive race. He is courted by hardline and softline factions, both of which inform Dalton of their secret plans for him to take command of the fleet. The former want him to exterminate the Hukk, while the latter urge him to avert the massacre via preemptive surrender.

Dalton tells both sides that he’ll think about it.

Considering the situation from the Hukk point of view, Dalton concludes that their raids on Terran assets are moves in the Glory Game–a pragmatic projection of military force that seeks to maximize territorial gains and prestige while minimizing loss of life and loss of face. He deduces that the Hukk will take advantage of the Terran naval exercise to launch an attack on Luna.

Dalton redeploys his ships to earth and bluffs the Hukk Grand Admiral into surrendering. The Terran fleet’s commander orders him to wipe out the disarmed Hukk. Dalton refuses, invoking the set of double secret orders issued by the softliners that give him command of the fleet. This legal act of defiance alienates the hardliners but endears Dalton to the sofliners.

The victorious softliners make Dalton an admiral and ask him to perjure himself before Congress to support a treaty that will give the Hukk military and economic aid while dismantling the Terran fleet. Dalton testifies honestly, which turns the softliners against him. Universally hated, he is discharged from the military and sent to administer a naval junkyard on a backwater world.

Three months into his exile, Dalton chances upon secret plans for a Hukk invasion. The local bureaucrats dismiss his warnings as the self-aggrandizing ramblings of a has-been, so Dalton takes matters into his own hands. He single-handedly repels the Hukk, but only by letting the enemy captain save face: Dalton must swear to keep the failed invasion a secret.

Dalton gives his word never to speak of the invasion, though his silence leaves him vulnerable to ridicule and criminal prosecution. Laumer then introduces what seems like the story’s twist ending: an undercover agent from Naval Intelligence sent to keep tabs on Dalton witnessed his heroics. He states his willingness to vindicate Dalton against his detractors and get him reinstated by the navy.

But this plot turn is merely a feint for the real twist. Dalton responds to the agent’s offer of vindication and reinstatement with the story’s four closing words: “I’ll think about it.”

Wright explains the stoic melancholy of the book’s ending.

It means that the Naval Intelligence corps is no more to be trusted to protect a man’s conscience than it is the Senatorial staff, the bureaucrats, the State Department, or the Joint Chiefs who form the backdrop of corruption and compromise against which Dalton shines so brightly, and so alone.

It means there is no reward for virtue. None.

He then analyzes Dalton’s decision in light of the four stages of civilizational decline outlined previously. Wright characterizes Dalton as a Worldly man flirting with Nihilism. “This is the point of view of a Western man, raised in a culture seeped  with Christian notions of chivalry and fair play and equality and nobility, but who has lost confidence in the center.”

Dalton does in fact insist on right conduct without compromise or hope of reward, but inhabiting as he does a science fiction story, which by tradition gives short shrift to a transcendent source of moral authority, he can give no ultimate rational justification for the philosophy he lives by.

Even as all math is based on principles not themselves open to mathematical proof or disproof, even as all physics is based on assumptions no physical experiment can prove or disprove, the worldly man when he realizes the simple truth that all nature is based on the supernatural, only then can restore God to the central place in his life and in his society. Only then can that man have a rational view of life that does not idolize rationality.

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.