From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Table Tennis Fantasy Tour

More people play the Olympic Sport of Table Tennis than any other sport in the world–even soccer–according to Olympic.org. Yet, despite 40 million competitive players and countless millions playing recreationally, where is the fantasy table tennis?

There are a number of table tennis farces–basically fantasy–and a surprising number of dramas. Two robots play table tennis in a 13-second sequence in an episode of Jimmy Neutron, and it’s featured a couple of times in Sesame Street. There’s a table tennis sequence in an episode of Star Trek Voyager. There’s even a ten-second Sci-Fi channel trailer that features a pair of six-armed table tennis players. (Is it fantasy, Sci-Fi, or SyFy?)

But where’s the fantasy? Where’s the magic?

I can think of four movies that feature fantasy table tennis. You probably have seen Forrest Gump (1994), which is borderline fantasy, though there’s no obvious magic. Inside scoop: a table tennis advisor was supposed to coach Tom Hanks on his strokes for the table tennis sequences, but the advisor thought they were making a joke of the sport and walked off the set, leaving Hanks to improvise–poorly. The stuff he gets that computer-animated ball to do is great fun, but it is pure fantasy.

Balls of Fury (2007), starring Christopher Walken as an evil crime boss, is a table tennis farce that spoofs martial arts films, and is the closest thing to true table tennis fantasy movie. Back-flipping table tennis, fantasy outfits and exotic rackets, balls that defy the laws of gravity, rallying while racing over a treacherous bridge, and a tournament held in a mysterious jungle compound where they play to the death–that’s fantasy!

Another is the 1946 movie A Matter of Life and Death, also titled “Stairway to Heaven.” The description from imdb.com: “A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.” There’s a scene in the movie where an angel comes to visit, and freezes time. Two people are playing table tennis at the time, and they freeze, as does the ball, in mid-air over the table. A floating ping-pong ball in 1946 was pretty neat at the time.

Finally, there is the 1939 movie, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. In it, WC Fields has a long fantasy table tennis sequence where the ball has a mind of its own as the two smack it back and forth, from outside the window, against a fan, and out of a woman’s mouth. This is the funniest table tennis sequence ever, until we get to the Marlboro Massacre–more on that shortly.

Moving to TV, there’s three great examples. One is 1988’s “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show,” which had an episode called The Natural. Yep, it’s a takeoff on the 1984 baseball movie “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford. The Shandling show features a Goddess of Ping-Pong, a sometimes incandescent paddle carved out of a tree felled by a lightning bolt, and the climactic finish where Shandling smashes the final winner, and the ball goes into the air and–just as in the baseball version–knocks out the gym’s lights, showering everyone with sparks.

Then there’s the “Ping-Pong Club,” a Japanese anime series in 1995, about the adventures of a middle school table tennis team in Japan. It’s over the top with its offensive humor, and would get an “R” rating for sexual situations and nudity. In a typical episode, they win by donning gas masks and having their American team member remove his shirt, with the smell overcoming the opponents. (This is by far one of their less offensive situations.) It’s in Japanese with English subtitles.

Finally, an episode of the TV show “Get Smart” (“Die Spy“) satirizes the TV show “I Spy,” which featured two spies, one of whom was a championship tennis player. In “Get Smart,” Maxwell Smart pretends to be a championship table tennis player. It includes some nice table tennis sequences, and we get to see ping-pong paddle guns and ping-pong ball grenades. Is it fantasy? Close enough.

In the written world, Piers Anthony’s Robot Adept (1989) easily wins for best fantasy table tennis. (It’s book five in the Apprentice Adept Series, but it’s stand alone.) The book culminates in the last two chapters (29 pages) where the champion from Phaze, a world of magic, takes on the champion from Proton, a parallel technological world, with the future of both worlds in the balance. The final battle is best two out of three games, played with three sets of rules and paddles. Especially interesting is the game where it’s magic versus technology. Representing Phaze is Mach, a former robot now in a human body, using a magic paddle. Representing Proton is Bane, a former human now in a robot body, using a technological paddle. Incredible rallies and tactics ensue, described in great detail.

The only other “major” table tennis fantasy in the written world I know of is by yours truly, “Ping-Pong Ambition,” from the anthology “Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic” (Fall, 2007). In this, an aspiring table tennis player named Toby cracks a ping-pong ball while practicing. A genie comes out and grants Toby one wish. He asks to be a great table tennis player. Instead, the genie traps him inside the ping-pong ball with a tiny, million-page book on how to be a genie, and sends the ball 10,000 years into the past. Toby spends much time going through the book, from Adepts to Table Tennis to Zombies, while practicing on a tiny table he creates. After 10,000 years, someone plays table tennis with the ball–with poor Toby inside. The ball cracks, and Toby escapes–where he is faced with an aspiring ping-pong player named . . . you can figure out the rest.

We’ll finish with the fantasy sequence that the cigarette industry does not want you to see–The Horrifying Marlboro Massacre.

Larry Hodges, of Germantown, MD, is an active member of SFWA with numerous short story sales. He’s been a full-time writer for many years with over 1100 published articles. He’s also a championship table tennis player and coach, is a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and has three books published on this Olympic Sport. Visit him at his SF & Fantasy page and his Table Tennis page.

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