"The Saturn Game," by Poul Anderson
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact - February 2, 1981
"The game, the damned childish game," he muttered, too low for his companions to hear. "Was nothing saner possible for them?"
One of the continuous threads that runs through the tapestry of the human experience is the constant desire to ignore, or deny, reality. You can see it in people who sit at the same slot machine for hours because it's overdue for a hefty payout or among the Cold War leaders who insisted there was such a thing as a winnable nuclear war. You can see it in roleplaying games like all those set in White Wolf's Old World of Darkness setting, where mages struggled against a "consensus reality" in which brazen paranormal acts were forbidden because people didn't believe in magic, and that belief made it so.
That sort of concept, while common in fantasy, doesn't belong in science fiction as far as I'm concerned. In science fiction, reality is the implacable judge. Poul Anderson's "The Saturn Game" is one of the places where those two conceits converge into one.
The story follows four crew members aboard Chronos, a spaceship launched to conduct a thorough exploration of Saturn and its moons, an eight-year journey from Earth. Their specific responsibility is to survey the moon Iapetus, as the last robotic probe sent there ceased transmitting shortly after landing. Anderson does well in his descriptions of Iapetus, a moon rimed with ice and boasting natural architectures that endure solely because for millions of years, there's been no one around to break them.
At the core of the story is how the crewmembers deal with the stress and isolation of being so far removed from Earth. For three of the four focus characters, the answer is a "psychodrama," which at first reading I took as a LARP but is actually a diceless, GM-less role-playing game on the starkest face of it. Here Anderson is able to build bridges between science fiction and fantasy, with the players diving into an imagined fantasy world to keep themselves entertained. For eight years they continue their game, and when they arrive at Iapetus having based many of the background details of their psychodrama around what they expect to find, they find themselves caught between their fantasy and the implacable reality around them.
Enrapturement stories have been written for ages, within the boundaries of sf and without. What makes "The Saturn Game" stand a bit above the rest of them, in my opinion, is that its enrapturement is entirely self-inflicted. If that same story was to be written in 2009 instead of 1981, more likely than not the author would have the crew dive deep into something like an MMO or the old standard of too-perfect virtual reality.
Here, Anderson makes clear the dangers of separating oneself too far from reality. In space, the briefest inattention or distraction could be deadly; building a second layer of unreality around that, like a pressure hull made from melted butter, would only hasten the judgement of nature.