After a devastating atomic world war, the humans of Earth have mostly killed each other off. Only about a million remain and most are sterile due to the radiation weapons developed by the Germans and used by the “Red Chinese.” Some humans now have telepathic abilities, too.
The alien Vugs of Titan, taking the opportunity to extend their domains, are now the Earth’s rulers. They seem like benevolent conquerors and overseers. For their amusement, they allow human landowners (“Bindmen”) to play a game called Bluff, which is much like Monopoly where the stakes are real pieces of property on the ruined Earth. The Vugs, who seem (but may not be) intent on not allowing the human race to die out, also use the game to mix up couples, hoping to serendipitously find viable breeding pairs. Any Bindman can play in the district where they own property, using their land and spouse for stakes in the game.
Pete Garden is a pill-popping suicidal Bindman who plays Bluff nightly. With the roll of a die, Pete has just lost his 18th wife and — worse — Berkeley, California. When the man who won it from him is murdered, Pete is the prime suspect and since his memory of the night of the murder is gone, Pete isn’t so sure he didn’t commit the crime. As he and his friends investigate, they uncover plots and conspiracies and eventually travel to Titan to play Bluff with their alien overlords. This game has really high stakes.
The Game-Players of Titan, first published in 1963, is chock-full of the elements we see in so many of Philip K. Dick’s stories — appliances that talk, alien simulacra, miserable marriages, precogs, psychiatrists, paranoid delusions, lots of alcohol, and hallucinogenic drug trips… I could go on. It’s also full of an unusual number of Philip K. Dick’s crazy and original ideas, and plenty of plot twists.
I was so intrigued by the premise of The Game-Players of Titan and I thought it was a ripping fun read until Dick eventually goes off (like I knew he would) on his paranoid delusional I-have-no-idea-what-the-heck-is-going-on-here binge. At this point, we’re not sure who’s a human, who’s an alien, what’s real, what’s a delusion, and even what planet we’re on. Or maybe we’re not even in real space, but somewhere behind reality? No idea.
Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted. The Game-Players of Titan has a great premise and is especially imaginative, but eventually devolves, as so many Philip K. Dick novels do, into a haze of incomprehensibility. Still, it’s not the most obscure of PKD’s stories and, if it’s not among the best of his stories, it’s far from the worst.
Christopher Lane expertly narrates Brilliance Audio’s recent production of The Game-Players of Titan. I highly recommend it.