Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tumbling Dice

As I have said before, the late 60s actually took place in the early 1970s, and it was an interesting time, with a lot of ideas in the wind. One of the ideas in the wind was probabilistic decision making.

I suspect that the I Ching had something to do with it. All those college kids taking a hit off the bong, tossing the coins, then reading poorly translated Confucian texts in an attempt at fortune telling. It sounds very hippy dippy woo woo, but some of us knurds looked at it and said, "Aha! A probabilistic response to a non-full knowledge game." Then we'd take another bong hit.

Then you had Dungeons and Dragons, with all those weird polygonal dice. Given the degree of emotional investment in D&D characters, it was probably inevitable that someone would try something similar in real life.

D&D came out in 1974, but The Dice Man, by George Cockcroft (writing as "Luke Rhinehart," the ostensible protagonist of the novel) was published in 1971. The story is of a psychiatrist who, suffering from boredom and midlife crisis, decides to start making decisions based on the random toss of dice. Then, as zest, he begins adding some "forbidden" possibilities, including raping the wife of his next door neighbor. This being the sort of fantasy that it is, the dice pop up with that order, he complies, and she enjoys it (I know, I know).

He introduces his patients to "dice therapy" and things get out of hand in the sort of way that novels described as "funny, bawdy, [and] outrageous," get out of hand. A cult forms around him. The government gets involved. All very counter-culture in its way.

So, was it D&D or The Dice Man that was responsible for the following scene at a science fiction convention in the mid-1970s? Elevator stops, doors open. Outside is a woman looking into the elevator. She shakes her hands together, looks at the dice, then looks back at the elevator and waves goodbye.

Anyway, plays have been written, songs sung, lifestyles devised and documented. It struck a chord. I saw no reason not to use it as part of the basis for a religion several centuries from now. It's not as if randomness is going to go away.

9 comments:

black dog barking said...

Also from the early 70s, Robert Coover examined the consequences of playing at dice with a virtual universe in The Universal Baseball Association etc. Real time criticism from the local college faculty: story's okay but we'd kill for the game. Fantasy baseball a decade before there was fantasy baseball.

Cast Your Fate to the Wind fires a strong synaptic buzz for me, one I can't reverse engineer. Mr Google, usually helpful with the timely mental prods, is shooting blanks. There is a link to a Steve Alaimo recording from the time. Coincidentally, I just listened to his cover of Blowing in the Wind last night, same album -- a professional and laughably commercial reading of a pop ditty du jour.

James Killus said...

We've mentioned The Universal Baseball Association before, here.
I still haven't located a prior essayh on my newsgroup that speaks to it, but this gives me another stimulus for that.

The Coover book is another example of a story that uses fantasy as an element, without having overt fantasy occurances in the "real world." It's a phenomenon I find very interesting. In a callback to something you wrote a few days ago, fantasy and imagination circumscribe all of our actions, and people cannot do what they cannot dream of doing. A while back I noticed that the "standard futures" of SF now consist almost exclusively of oligarchic galactic empires and corporate fuedalism. This depresses me mightily. I hope it's just because I'm somewhat out-of-touch with the current state of the field.

black dog barking said...

Good point and, yes, depressing, that we can speculate about achieving enough insight into how the universe works so that we conquer distance and time yet we do not outgrow the drive to exploit the less powerful. "Royal" blood survives the barriers to faster-than-light travel. That is *very* depressing.

Speaking of depression, the economic variety is purely an act of negative imagination, the failure to imagine. No work implies there is no work to be done, no problems—a laughable presumption. In the 1930s we saw farmers destroying crops and animals for lack of market while others were starving. Today we have rising numbers of empty homes and rising numbers of homeless people. The obvious solution isn't available because there is no way to record it in our accounting systems. *That* is a failure of imagination.

James Killus said...

There is a bit of a problem with putting homeless people in the empty houses. Around here at least, the empty housing is mostly "upscale" homes built out on the periphery of the urban areas, with no transportation available other than automobile. T'would be great for all those homeless folks who own automobiles.

So then we get the need to redo the mass transit system, etc., which has no lack of imaginative solutions, but many deadfalls along the route.

JP Stormcrow said...

Hmmm, we seem to be caught in a Universal Baseball Association black hole. I've been away for a bit, read the post and thought of it and opened the comments ... and voila! I'll complete this by mentioning Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon again (no dice, but rich inner fantasy life).

James Killus said...

Ha! Found it.

And I should re-familiarize myself with Brautigan. I suspect he's gotten better since last I read him.

JP Stormcrow said...

I suspect he's gotten better since last I read him.

Yep, death can do that to a writer.

Gary Gygax said...

I am a massive fan of George Cockcroft.

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