display | more...

There are many different tacks to be taken in discussing the Glass Bead Game, and I am surprised that more of them are not mentioned here. Especially since The Glass Bead Game is very closely related to our own undertaking. But the main thing that struck me while reading the Glass Bead Game is the same thing that sticks out in most works of science fiction: the anachronism of it.

The Glass Bead Game takes place in Europe sometime in the near to intermediate future. European society has recovered from something called "The Century of Wars", and developed what seems to be a slightly more intellectual, civilized climate than what prevailed in Herman Hesse's own time, which is not a hard achievement. Part of this culture was fostered by a group known as "The Order", an academic, somewhat religious elite that runs elite schools and runs a game called "The Glass Bead Game", which is not fully described, but is an intellectual competition where player-scholars attempt to connect concepts from music, philosophy and mathematics in innovative and subtle ways. How the culture of the Glass Bead Game is related to the rest of the world's culture and society is hinted at, but not fully discussed. Whether this was due to Hesse's own disinterest in the technology and society of the future, or whether he is taking the perspective of the conservative representatives of The Order, who would have little interest in such things.

In either case, the book displays no technological development. Transportation is at the early-20th century level, with trains and automobiles, but no use of airplanes for travel. There doesn't even seem to be mention of typewriters, which were hardly a new invention when Hesse was writing. In general, technology is not even mentioned, other than the dismissal with which "The Order" treats engineering. At no point is technology used as part of the games the order plays. Music is important, yet it is only straight forward, acoustical music. Even amplification is not mentioned. Any usage of information technology in the recording or playing of the Game is also not mentioned. But leaving technology out of science fiction is not always a bad idea: technology tends to progress in unpredictable ways, and in this case, it isn't even that relevant to the theme of the book, which is more about social and intellectual themes than technological themes.

If the lack of technological process is unusual, the social anachronisms portrayed in the book are truly unusual. The most overwhelming social fact in the book is that The Order is all-male, with elite education only available for men. I actually was surprised to learn after reading the book that Hesse was married, and was not openly homosexual. Homosexuality is discussed in the book, but only once, and the undertones of how all these men live close, celibate lives together where they display restrained affection for each other is not layed out. Not that I am expecting anything especially prurient, but the total absence of women in the book, and the idea that women can not take part in academic life, is especially striking. Especially since even The Catholic Church (which is described in this book in passing), which is in close parallel to "The Order" never denied that women could partake in academic life. It is also not simply anachronistic, it is truly "retrochronistic" since even at the time that Hesse started writing, Marie Curie had received the Nobel Prize twenty years before. So the total dismissal of women from intellectual life is puzzling and disconcerting.

Perhaps even more surprising than the sexism is the classism in the book. The book is about an intellectual elite, which is described as having close ties to a political and social elite. Although outside affairs are only dealt with in passing, the society outside does not appear to be democratic in great depths. Even if it may be democratic politically, it is not democratic socially: what is worthwhile in the culture is codified by "The Order", and seems to be a mixture of classical music and semi-Aristotelian philosophy that was again, retrochronistic for the time Hesse was writing. At no point is it hinted that the common people could innovate or create a culture or technology that would be relevant, liberating or intrinsically valuable. Instead, culture is created by a small cadre of men operating through personal loyalty.

To give an example of how "The Glass Bead Game" actually works, in the real 2009 instead of the pretend centuries future that Hesse imagined, I will tell a story about a friend of mine. A young woman I know sewed a Teddy Bear in imitation of a fractal pattern (a mathematical innovation that Hesse would presumably not have known of) and released the picture on the internet (which Hesse also wouldn't have known of), and several days later, received an e-Mail from Benoit Mandelbrot (who was a freshman in college when this book was finished) who was appreciative of fractal Teddy and requested one for his grandchildren. Hesse never describes exactly what goes on in the Glass Bead Game, but I doubt he could have imagined something as awesome as this.

My criticisms of the book shouldn't be taken as meaning either that I didn't enjoy it, or think that Hesse was ignorant or had a hidden agenda. Hesse the author is not, after all, the narrator of the book, and the book is in many ways critical of the society it presents. However, I still find some of the anachronisms in the book extremely puzzling, and it makes me realize that as an American, there are aspects of European society that do not make sense to me.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.