The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse

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The Glass Bead Game (aka Magister Ludi), Hermann Hesse (trans. Richard and Clara Winston), Holt, 1990 (trans. 1969), ISBN 0-8050-1246-X

I picked up this novel, also known as Magister Ludi, after meeting Charles Cameron, who invented the Hipbone Games, a variation of the Glass Bead Game as described in this novel. Charles was so wildly enthusiastic about it–and I was so intrigued and delighted with his game–that I immediately visited the AU library the day after chatting with him and began reading the life story of Joseph Knect, the Master of the Glass Bead Game. As I fell deeper and deeper down Hesse’s rabbit hole, I found myself asking people if they knew that this novel, which basically won Hesse the Nobel Prize in Literature, was science fiction? How come this isn’t mentioned in genre studies, if not with the pulp masters, at least among those literary books that strayed into far shores like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?

Set in the far future, where today’s emphasis on entertainment is termed the Age of the Feuilleton, The Glass Bead Game describes a world that has once again settled down from the conflicts between humans in a new Golden Age, but one wherein a new caste has been created. Not a religious order, although their devotion to their ideals resembles religion, this new group is based on education, one of their duties being to train all the teachers in this country. To be accepted into the group one must be educated in their elite schools, for only the brightest and the best and–this is important– the orphans are accepted into Castalia. Why orphans? Because family ties are the bonds that weaken the link to the Castalian society. The crowning achievement of all Castalia is not the elite schools and their pupils, but the game–a systematic method of linking math and music and history and art and, well, anything, into a perfect “whole.” Everyone admires the game, and the master of it, the Magister Ludi, is the pivot point for the players, and thus, Castalian society. The book, once it gives you this background, then describes the path of Joseph Knecht from elite student all the way to the seat of the Magister, and then, surprisingly, back to student.

Okay, I’m sure that had I stumbled upon this book when younger that I would not have finished it. Unlike pulp SF, the purpose of The Glass Bead Game is philosophical, not adventure. While you can read it for plot (and the “Three Lives” appendices provide plenty of that, in three different “fantasy” settings), the idea of perfection and what does it meant to be human are the real characters here, and the physical creatures described are just pawns in this literary gameplay. A few times I found myself rushing through the interminable equivocation, but for the most part my imagination was captivated. Seems to me that this might be the antidote for some of Ayn Rand’s sins.

[Finished April 1999]

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