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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Desperate Games

Pierre Boulle

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To purchase Desperate Games

Title: Desperate Games
Author: Pierre Boulle
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971 (Eng. 1973)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Desperate Games - US
Desperate Games - UK
Desperate Games - Canada
Les jeux de l'esprit - France
  • French title: Les jeux de l'esprit
  • Translated by Patricia Wolf

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Our Assessment:

C- : interesting ideas, spins completely out of control

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 4/6/1971 W.D.Redfern

  From the Reviews:
  • "M. Boulle is himself carried away in the gladiatorial scenes; he is at his best in the worst. It is not entirely clear whether he is reactionary and shares the scientists' dismay at popular mindlessness, or a bleak comedian who views the scientific revolution as only a higher form of folly. What is clear is the largely predictable nature of M. Boulle's forecasts, for he frequently drops clues like clangers." - W.D.Redfern, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pierre Boulle is a frustrating writer: bubbling over with ideas, he doesn't seem to have the patience to slowly use one (or a few) and build up a solid book around it (or them). Desperate Games is practically a case study in how not to run with an idea.
       The premise (or what appears to be the premise) is quite clever: he posits that the international scientific community has come to the conclusion that the world's leaders are doing a very poor job of it, and that scientists could do things much better -- indeed, that a scientific approach is all it takes to solve all the world's problems. So they organise a take-over, using the prestige of the Nobel prize -- it's the 'Nobels' that make the official call for a change -- and the sensible arguments they have. Apparently that's all it takes:

in this dawn of the twenty-first century, nearly all heads of state were tired of governing, frustrated by their own fruitless efforts to solve problems beyond their competence, and this sense of frustration filtered down through the public. (...) Nearly everyone resigned; odd resisters eventually were compelled to do so by the sweeping tide of public opinion.
       Okay, so it's ridiculously unrealistic -- but if it's a step Boulle needs to take to get to his Scientific World Government it can be tolerated. Surprisingly, however, it takes Boulle almost a third of the novel to establish this government -- not because the final transitional step was so hard (it was a piece of cake) but because he spends a great amount of space introducing the characters, mainly by describing the final exam the last contestants for the leadership positions are taking. The top scientists between ages 35 and 50, compete to see who gets the top job, as well as the lesser ones. It's a decent way to introduce the characters -- except that he never does all that much with them.
       One might imagine that Boulle would then show how much better (or worse) science is at solving the world's problems. But that, too, is easily dispensed with. After three years (and about three pages) war is no longer possible, the world's population has been stabilized (yeah, that's possible ...), "famine and common hunger were things of the past", and: "Everyone was suitably housed, under ideal sanitary conditions and with all desirable conveniences." Boulle offers essentially no explanation as to how this was made possible (since, of course, it's completely impossible, regardless of the best intentions and plans), but, hey, it sounds good. Oh, right, and:
     Economic crises were over and done with now that production, trade, and exchange were centrally controlled and balanced in the interests of all the people.
       Yes, this world view is a pretty simple one. And yet one wants to allow the author his idyll -- it's his fantasy, after all -- , and see where he takes it.
       The scientists expect that everyone will use this new peaceful, comfortable time and pursue learning, but the masses aren't really into that. At scientific lectures they dutifully attend the only questions they have are about astrology, and they generally don't care much about deeper learning.
       Meanwhile, it is especially the scientists who are stricken by "loss of confidence in the ego" -- LCE ! It's one of Boulle's nuttier ideas, but at least some fun, as scientists no longer trust their own senses, but can only rely in instruments and machines in this ultra-technological, science-based world: drivers crash their cars when they are unable to steer or control their cars, pilots crash their planes unless they do a blind instrument landing ..... Most hilariously, some simply stop breathing, having: "lost confidence in their ability to breathe without mechanical aid."
       Meanwhile, the general population is also bored to tears: there's hardly need to work, but they don't know what to do with themselves. Suicide rates skyrocket.
       What to do ? Leave it to the scientists .....
       Because of the decline of nations there are also no more international sporting events -- and it appears that's exactly the sort of thing people miss. So new contests are invented -- which finally brings us to the 'desperate games' of the title. And they certainly are desperate -- and dangerous. To capture audience interest the Department of Leisure invents gladiatorial contests, fights to the death. And from "mixed-team superwrestling" (very successful) to "rugby with spiked helmets" (less so) the masses are kept entertained. (Oddly, Boulle -- and his scientists -- don't worry about the ethical implications of these contests.)
       The masses are kept entertained -- for a while. Eventually, of course, what they want is more -- and bigger spectacles. And so -- surprise ! -- Boulle takes the idea to its extremes. Which makes for a modestly clever conclusion -- though given how he's led readers there, it's not the most convincing of lessons that is learned here.
       There's a fill of ideas in this novel -- enough to fill a much bigger book, or several. In this condensed version, with its odd leaps of focus and simplistic premises, it all seems fairly ridiculous. There's too little thought about what each step means (or how they could be accomplished), and so the only appeal is in the grand (and little) visions, some of which admittedly are very creative and intriguing.
       Boulle writes well (or easily) enough, but he's all over the place here, offering some personal detail to flesh out his characters, but never in a way that makes them in the least memorable or interesting. He's best with the larger ideas, but here he stuffs far too many in to make for a read that is in any way satisfying.

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Reviews: Pierre Boulle: Other books by Pierre Boulle under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) is best known as the author of Planet of the Apes and The Bridge over the River Kwai

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