Baseball as a Tool of the Resistance

Even in a dystopian reality, baseball can give purpose to life.

You always have a choice. Chew on those words and their connotation for a moment. You always have a choice. What does it mean to read that phrase or to hear it out loud? It’s loaded, isn’t? The implied “but” we all know is there. But every choice has consequences. That’s the second part of the phrase. Whether it’s stated explicitly or not, we know it’s there.

“You always have a choice,” is the most common refrain of the house run by artificial intelligence in Gish Jen’s new baseball-centric novel, The Resisters. The “house,” as it is referred to, attaches plenty of “buts” to the phrase as well, some explicit and some implied. And no one ever doubts the potential for consequences.

The book centers on a “surplus” family with a daughter who has the natural baseball ability of that kid we all remember being jealous of. Gwen’s particular talent lies in throwing a baseball, but there are no baseball leagues. The game is almost forgotten in this version of our future. And even were it not, as surplus, her family isn’t given access to much of anything. They are, quite literally, extras.

“Here, eat this and be quiet,” seems to be the motto of the AI-driven government they call “Aunt Nettie.” Do not think. Do not engage. Consumption is all you have to do.

It’s not a satisfying existence. Gwen’s parents are intelligent, educated people who are all too aware of the injustices being forced upon them. Injustices that, it must be noted, are rooted in both racism and disgust for all those who refuse to conform. The family resists by keeping a garden. The family resists by finding ways to fool the surveillance state. The family resists, finally, by starting a baseball league filled with other surplus players.

This new and subversive league progresses almost exactly as you would expect. But I’ll dwell on it a bit because this is The Hardball Times, after all. Author Gish Jen clearly knows her baseball, and the reorganization takes place with exactly the smattering of talent and honing of abilities we’re all hoping for.

The constant juxtaposition of bone-headed errors with pitching brilliance and of slick plays with hapless strikeouts is comforting and satisfying. We don’t instantly get to 100-mph fastballs. If you can break 70 and have some idea where it’s going, you’re headed straight to the mound. In this world, there is a cultural memory of baseball, and it surfaces quickly. Pitch selection and strategy are discussed in the kind of minute detail a baseball fan can appreciate.

But the point is not so much how the league progresses as why. It progresses because it gives purpose to people who have had their purposes taken away from them, who have been made to exist in a forced passivity that is antithetical to what it means to be human.

Baseball is only one part of the setting of the book, however. The consequences of climate change, the growing presence of technology in our lives, the persistent presence of racism and sexism, and the willingness of those in power to disregard their own rules because no one will stop them all hang over the novel. They remind us of all we have yet to tackle and of the consequences we’ll face if we don’t find a way. Add to it a heap of nationalism that pushes athletes — among others — to alter and damage their bodies for national glorification, and you have a convincing commentary on the things wrong with modern America. That’s a lot to tackle, but Jen manages every bit of it with a deftness and subtlety that avoids the heavy-handedness you might anticipate from such an intimidating list of topics.

The typical dystopian novel might stop there, content to remind us that it’s bad and getting worse all the time, and if The Resisters did that, I probably wouldn’t feel compelled to write a review of it. But The Resisters, the fifth novel from award-winning writer Jen, does something more effectively than any other book of the type I’ve seen — it delivers an unshakable case that there is always hope.

This core value of the book is represented not by Gwen so much as it is by her mother, Eleanor, who, despite countless brutalizations, continues to fight the system both in the nominally existent and endlessly labyrinthine court system and off the grid. All the central characters internally reject the idea that their society can label them as worthless and discard them, but it’s Eleanor who most actively and externally resists the surplus label and the injustice that comes with it. And it’s Eleanor as much as pitching phenom Gwen whom the other characters find themselves rallying around.

The Resisters tells us, ultimately, that resistance is essential. That all authorities must be questioned and pressed. That the more we are discouraged, the more essential the questioning and pressing become. And most importantly, that the act of resistance — the pure refusal to comply with a system built on injustice — is the most hopeful act any of us can undertake, because every act of a resistance is a declaration that we believe a better world is possible.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Alfonso Tusa
4 years ago

Baseball always have something to offer the human being expectations for better times. The great thing in this article, and on that novel is that remembrance on what we are capable of doing for the progress of the community or even beyond, by just starting to get involved in what we want as individuals. This is somehow related to the metaphore: Baseball is a family issue since everything begins and ends at home.

Famous Mortimer
4 years ago

I’ve already placed a hold on it at the local library, thanks to this review.

4 years ago

Presumably this league has the wisdom to eschew the robot umpire.