Thanks to my own predilections and far too much time spent in libraries, Invasion of the Space Invaders happens to be a book I know extremely well. In fact, it was one of the great personal “discoveries” of my brief academic career, and a significant influence in convincing me that my own first book (about video games, natch) was worth writing.
I interviewed Amis himself in January 2010, at his house in London; my own book had just come out, and he graciously allowed me to thrust a copy into his hands, complete with the confession that his Space Invaders had helped inspire me to write it. That fact alone, I suspect, ensured he would never even open the covers.
In any case, the recent mini-flood of Space Invaders interest has led me to dust off a section of my 2005 doctorate, in which I explored Amis’s video game interests in the context of his other work. In mildly edited form, for the geekish delight and delectation of those who just can’t get enough of a good gaming thing, here it is:
In 1982, Martin Amis brought out perhaps his most unusual book, Invasion of the Space Invaders, a non-fictional mixture of essay and how-to-play guide on the nascent topic of arcade gaming, with an introduction by no less than Steven Spielberg.
The book finds Amis playing dual roles: Martin Amis the critic-intellectual, and Martin Amis the avid gamer. The two personalities are kept rigidly separated from one another, with the second half of the book painstakingly (and rather usefully, for 1980s gamers) offering insiders’ tips and tactics, detailing how to beat games and maximize scores.
Here’s Amis, for example, offering sound advice on besting the original Space Invaders:
The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx. Before you do anything else, take out at least three enemy columns either on the left-hand side or the right (for Waves 1 and 2, the left is recommended). Thereafter the aliens will take much longer to cross their grid…Advice: position your tank under the eave of a defensive, and keep your eye on the aliens, not on the bombs.
The book’s first half, meanwhile, debates arcade gaming as both symptom and force for change within the 1980s:
There is something wilful, is there not, something voulu, about putting the last coins you own into one of these squat monsters…that is part of the spur. What more eloquent and effortless way of showing that you don’t care, that nothing matters?…Money has never looked cheaper. It looks disposable, throwaway stuff.
The book’s schizophrenic structure is a handy emblem of its author’s own attitude. For Amis, arcade gaming represents both an appealing entertainment and a nexus of the manipulative forces explored by his other novels and non-fiction – an epitome of technological modernity which blends pornography, addiction, denial and the pursuit of profit.
These are three typical passages from the first half of Space Invaders:
When the eggheads in Tokyo and Los Angeles roll up their sleeves and settle down over the logic boards, they aren’t out to improve the punter’s trigonometry or hand-eye co-ordination. They’re out to get his money into the international coin slot.
If you wanted to locate space-game playing as a moral activity, one would have to align it with pornography and its solitary pleasures. As such, it is no worse than any other form of selfish and pointless gratification; it is also very appropriate to the age.
We live in a time of extraterrestrial hopes and anxieties…It would seem that many of us have vacant or dormant areas in our minds, empty spaces waiting for invasion. This is the area whose expansion leads to quirkiness, eccentricity, madness. It used to be the Devil who invaded these spaces in the common mind. Now, for obvious reasons, it is the Martians, the Space Invaders…
While acknowledging gaming’s delightful intricacy and his own vulnerability to its allure, Amis outlines a relationship of potentially devastating feedback: people are delighted to escape from the world into the simplicities of solitary gratification, and the business of providing such gratification has become unprecedentedly possible and profitable. We thus face a situation in which (to borrow a phrase from The Information) each element in the equation is “lashed…towards infinity.”
The Space Invaders phenomenon, Amis suggests, is essentially pornographic, in that it embodies a larger body of invasive forces: economically motivated, targeting and inflaming the human appetite for gratification, sapping more complex mental resources and moral faculties.
Amis’s analysis of arcade gaming in Invasion of the Space Invaders was a prescient (if puritanical) one—and his sense of the power of these forces recurs with a vengeance in arguably his greatest novel, Money (1984).
Pornography is central to Money and to its central character and narrator, John Self, who more than any other of Amis’s creations enacts the struggles and debauches of the late twentieth century. “All my hobbies are pornographic in tendency,” Self admits:
The element of lone gratification is bluntly stressed. Fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs.
Himself a director of soft-porn TV commercials for junk food, alcohol and cigarettes, Self hurtles between London and America attempting to direct a film based on his own life, titled alternately Good Money and Bad Money.
What drives Self onwards? In a direct echo of Invasion of the Space Invaders, Self also bemoans the much-invaded space of his mind—he is in constant conflict with both “some fucking joker” inside and with the outside world, unsure what a fully known and controlled self (or Self) might be:
I sometimes think I am controlled by someone. Some space invader is invading my inner space, some fucking joker. But he’s not from out there. He’s from in here.
The idea of the “space invader” is central, here, establishing the technologised, contemporary shape of Self’s paranoia. His sense of helplessness and uncertainty is, he realises, of quite a different order to the feelings of people even a few generations before him:
Before…these tribes of spacefaced conquered would brood about God, Hell, the Father of Lies, the fate of the spirit, with the soul imagined as an inner being…But now the invader is a graph shadow swathed in spools and printouts, and he wears an alien face.
For John Self, the realm of the fantastic has become increasingly inhuman, even anti-human, beneath its pornographic exterior. And there is something more terrible about this shadowed “alien face” than either the God or the Hell of “before”; something first glimpsed, I can’t help but suspect, by both this character and his author on a pulsing screen within a video arcade.
Tom Chatfield is an author and commentator. He blogs at tomchatfield.net