The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

glass-bead-gameHaving taken more than a decade to write, The Glass Bead Game, also known under the title of Magister Ludi (which is Latin for Master of the Game) was Herman Hesse’s final novel, and his only one that might be considered science fiction; it’s set in the twenty third century.

The full title of the edition I read – Vintage 2000, translated by Richard and Clara Winston – is The Glass Bead Game: A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Kencht’s posthumous writings edited by Hermann Hesse. Therefore, the conceit of this novel is that this is a fictional biography of said Knecht, which includes a few different sources, all brought together by Hesse.

The plot is fairly perfunctory. A talented but by no means exceptional boy studies the art of the Glass Bead Game in some bizarrely static future (I’ll come to that shortly), eventually becoming the top man in the hierarchy that oversees the game. The game itself is all about philosophy and music, although we never actually learn how the game is played or what the outcomes of the tournaments are. But the game itself is not really the point. The point is that Hesse was addressing a fundamental issue of the twentieth century: the end of national hierarchies and the rise of individualism. It even covers the rise of neo-libraralism (mentioned on page 303), as mentioned by the father of Plinio Designori who dominates his son’s life and belief system.

The Glass Bead Game is an odd one. On one hand, it is an imaginative thought piece on the changing nature of humanity. On the other, it is a deeply troubling projection of the author’s perception of the world, which somehow gained much critical acclaim.

So, the plot takes place in the future, but in truth it is a reflection on the past and not an actual comment on what Hesse thought the future might look like. Major themes are classic music, German philosophers, Chinese mysticism (I Ching), and religion. Nothing has progressed from the 1930s that Hesse must have experienced. It almost beggars belief that authors cannot look at the progress shown by history and not think the future will be filled with further progress. In Hesse’s future there are no technological or cultural advancements at all. Worse, his attitude towards women in particular and non-while males in general is shocking. It saddens me that this book is held in such high regard when it features not a single named female character in the biography of Knecht. It seems only men, and European men at that, have any place in the running of the future. The first mention of any woman is Plinio Designori’s mother on page 278 of this edition (more than half way through the book). The first female character with any agency is Plinio’s un-named wife (page 310), although her primary function is mother to their son. While Hesse extols the virtues of teachers, he suggests that they should be men. Interestingly, however, in the first line of Knecht’s so-called writings, it is stated that women ruled many thousands of years ago.

The Glass Bead Game becomes a black and white debate throughout its prose. There are several strands, but to Hesse it is always this versus that: the religious orders v the Game orders; the creation v the study of art; art v philosophy; art v science and the main event of course: the individualism of careerism, wealth and fame versus the old fashioned hierarchy where every brick in the wall counts, holding up the head of the ‘thing’ and its ideals. This is exemplified by Knecht’s stay with the Music Master while still at school, and (the voice of religion) Father Jacobus’s angry rant when Knecht was staying at the monastery (the Pythagorean brotherhood or the Christian church). Later, this examination of hierarchy is confirmed when Knecht is given the title of Magister and therefore he was to be a “jewel in the crown, a pillar in the structure” and he had to think of the Whole and serve the elite. At the conclusion, it is noted that “what would become of our Hierarchy . . .” if each man did not live in his assigned place.

Whether it is this particular translation, or the original writing, but parts of Knecht’s story are engaging enough The writing is skilled, and even though some paragraphs are longer than a page, rarely boring. Knecht’s relationship with the Music Master, his investigation of the I Ching and the changing relationship with Plinio Designori – the character who represents individualism – as they age, are charming and interesting. Knecht eventually rejecting the old ways and embracing the future. The biography style works well, and the author(s) discuss the truth of the tale versus the legend, describing where the information about Knecht’s life comes from, which gives the writing added authority.

A final criticism, and again one that seems to have gone un-noticed in the praise for this novel, is that there are meant to be at least three authors of this book. The ‘biographers’ who are talking to the reader for most of the story; the anonymous author of the final chapter ‘Legend’, and Knecht himself with his poetry and within the section entitled Three Lives. Yet, there is no difference in style or voice of the author; clearly Hesse himself. Surely he should have presented these writers as having their own unique styles, or did everyone in the future write like a 19th Century German?

A complex novel with a lot to enjoy but so much more to be concerned about. I’m undecided whether Hesse was looking back at affection at the old hierarchies of the past and warning about individualism, especially concerning Knecht’s fate. Either philosophy is problematic anyway, and Hesse doesn’t really consider shades of grey. If this book is some vision of Hesse’s future utopia, it has no place for anyone other than white European men. Shameful. Science fiction, of course, examines humanity and what it means to be a human either in the future or an alternative history. The Glass Bead Game does not do this but rather reflects on the past with rose-tinted glasses. Despite being set in the future, it is not a science fiction story by any stretch of the imagination.

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