There’s a particular challenge to writing about sports in a science fictional setting. Some writers have memorably explored what advances in technology might do to a familiar pastime—consider Lincoln Michel’s novel The Body Scout or Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Vanilla Dunk,” which address baseball and basketball, respectively. Kwaku Osei-Afrifa’s novella The Surf takes a somewhat different route, bringing the reader into the milieu of an entirely new sport that’s evolved out of a number of significant technological and societal changes.
That isn’t all that’s changed in the future depicted in The Surf—but it takes a little while to determine exactly what’s happened differently to get us from 2022 to the book’s setting. That’s the point—one of the many pleasures of reading Osei-Afrifa’s book is the way that they slowly reveal details about the circumstances that led to this point in history—and why so many people are intrigued by a sport in which high-velocity travel and the risk of serious injury, if not death, is common.
Osei-Afrifa spells out the rules of ultsurf, the game featured in The Surf, before the story begins. It’s described as “a race to get through six hexagonal gates, known as Splits,” and is played by teams of 64. The rules eventually reveal that teams must have “an appropriate medical plan in case of player injury or fatality,” and that an element of secrecy surrounds specific games.
What’s less apparent until the first chapter begins is where this all begins—which is to say, high in the air above a planet’s surface. Narrator Ele describes the process of ascending higher and higher, and of what it’s like to watch—and then to take part in—an ultsurf match.
It’s also here that Osei-Afrifa begins to slip in aspects of the larger world that they’ve created. Ele makes a reference to the “Terran Civil War,” and reveals that this is an era of body modification: “Anyone rich enough to fuck with the lottery of transhuman capabilities that doesn’t choose flight is a sundamned idiot and has never Surfed.” That choice of “sundamned”—and a reference later in the paragraph to “the galaxy we called our home”—gives a better sense of the civilization Ele is a part of.
Certain aspects of ultsurf resound significantly with some contemporary concerns over sports, especially the physical toll that it takes on its players, which lines up well opposite the way many people who have played contact sports have shown signs of brain injuries. But there’s also a more underground element to it—Ele reminds the reader a few times that her ultsurf pursuits do not bring in enough income for her to live on.
There’s also a more chaotic element to ultsurf that feels more battle royale than club competition. Here’s Ele’s description of several games happening in the same region:
“So, since the sky is everywhere, there are a lot of games that play simultaneously. The interference we run to try and throw the authorities off us, is also designed to throw other teams off. See, there’s no rule saying how many teams can play in one game. When game areas are pinged, you scramble to the location and as long as two teams are there at the start, then the Surf’s up.”
Gradually, Ele reveals more and more of her own past—including moments that explain Ele’s fraught relationship to her mother. One of the more deft elements of The Surf is the way Osei-Afrifa foregrounds Ele’s voice and persona while sneaking in larger questions about what happened to Earth and what the power structure of this futuristic civilization is like.
And while Ele makes a few references to the rush of emotions she feels while playing ultsurf, this isn’t just a novel about the ups and downs of an athlete in a futuristic sport. Gradually, more and more of Ele’s past comes into focus, as she’s given a troubling choice that could affect both her future in ultsurf and shake the power dynamics around the sport.
As befitting the sport at its center, The Surf is a fast-paced work of fiction, with one chapter told entirely via text exchanges. And while its compact structure and fast pace are well-suited to the story it tells, there are a few moments—as in one early scene where Ele realizes she knows very little about the personal lives of her teammates—where it’s easy to imagine a more expansive version of this story that gives an even fuller sense of the social dynamics in play.
Osei-Afrifa pulls off the impressive task of describing dozens of enhanced humans flying in what might look like chaos to an untrained eye, and foregrounds the headlong rush of taking part in such a sport, despite the countless risks involved. That quality helps to explain why this novella’s blend of form and function click together so well—even as, as a reader, I’d also be intrigued to read more set in this same futuristic setting. Can you have an emotional connection to a fictional sport that it would be impossible to stage using current technology? This volume might well convince you of it.
The Surf is available from Rebellion Publishing.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).