The Game-Players of Titan: A highly entertaining but bewildering Dickian jaunt

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Sandy’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Game-Players of Titan by PKD science fiction book reviewsThe Game-Players of Titan by Philip K. Dick

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe 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.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Game-Players Of Titan by Philip K. DickKat has referred to this book’s “crazy and original ideas,” and boy, is that ever the case! Philip K. Dick‘s 10th novel, The Game-Players of Titan, was originally released in 1963 as an Ace paperback (F-251, for all the collectors out there), with a cover price of a whopping 40 cents. His follow-up to the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, it was one of six novels that Phil saw published from 1962-’64, during one of the most sustained and brilliant creative bursts in sci-fi history. Like so many of the author’s works, the action in Game-Players transpires on a futuristic Earth (around the year 2225, if I read between the lines correctly) that has been laid waste by war and hard radiation. Here, it has been 130 years since mankind fought the vugs of the Saturnian moon Titan to a stalemate, and now an uneasy peace of sorts reigns, while the fortunate landowners of the depleted, sterile society play a game called Bluff and wager gigantic chunks of real estate at the table. When we first meet the book’s central character, Pete Garden, a suicidal, 150-year-old landowner, he is sorely upset due to his recent loss of Berkeley at that night’s game… not to mention the loss of his 18th wife! And Pete’s lot is soon to get a lot worse, when the newest member of his playing group is abruptly murdered, Pete’s memory is blanked out, and suspicion falls squarely upon him. And that murder rap just opens up an ever-widening labyrinth of political intrigue and escalating paranoia for the poor, befuddled character.

I must say, this is one of the wildest, most imaginative, most way-out Dickian jaunts that I have ever encountered… perhaps too much so, for its own good. The book is filled with all kinds of interesting touches, from talking cars, tea kettles and bathroom cabinets to the fascinating sequence in which a telepath examines the mind of a “pre-cog.” Many of Phil’s pet interests, such as opera, cigars and divorce (Phil would ultimately marry five times) are given an airing, and there is much humor to be had, as well. For example, the car that Joe Schilling, Pete’s best friend (a bearded manager of a classical music store, as Phil had been in the early ’50s, and a clear stand-in here for the author), drives, is a riot, responding to its owner’s commands with comments such as “Up yours.” The book has a typically large cast (47 named characters, including the 16 in Pete’s Pretty Blue Fox game-playing group); some human, some vugs, and many with ESP-type abilities. Those vugs, by the way, are silicon based, Phil here beating Star Trek‘s Horta to the silicic punch by a good four years! Typical for a Dick novel, the book is compulsively readable and brimming with ideas. And as for Dick’s favorite theme, that of the elusiveness of objective reality, boy, does this novel deliver in spades, and then some! And that is part of the problem.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn this book — where the vugs are capable of mind control, and many characters lie to one another, and red herrings abound, and in which Pete Garden takes so many pills with his booze that he has psychotic episodes — it really is impossible to tell what’s what. To make matters even more confusing, the vugs are capable of appearing human and some can even teleport Earth folk instantaneously to Titan or to some in-between limbo state. In short, readers will be hard put to ever know what is real, who is what, where we are or whom we can trust. It is Dick at his most paranoid and extreme, and although it does make for fun reading, I’m not sure that the whole thing hangs together logically, or whether the motivations of several characters are consistent. Heck, this is a murder mystery in which the identity of the killer is never even revealed (!), and in truth, as the novel progresses, that issue becomes increasingly unimportant.

I was ultimately left unsure, by The Glame-Players of Titan‘s conclusion, if several characters were actual vugs or merely humans being controlled by vugs. Those vugs, by the way, are never adequately described by Phil; he just tells us that they are “amorphous” and have pseudopods. Six feet tall or six inches? Who knows? And although Dick’s novel ends happily, for the most part, the author seems unable to resist throwing in some downbeat ambiguity in the final pages. This is clearly a book that could have seen a sequel, a common temptation for sci-fi writers and one that Phil, amazingly, never succumbed to. In all, a highly readable and entertaining novel from Dick’s middle period, if a bewildering one.

~Sandy Ferber

Published in 1963. Years ago, Earth and Titan fought a war and Earth lost. The planet was irradiated and most of the surviving population is sterile. The few survivors play an intricate and unending game called Bluff at the behest of the slug-like aliens who rule the planet. At stake in the game are two very important commodities: land and spouses. Pete Garden just lost his wife and Berkeley, California, but he has a plan to win them back. That is, if he isn’t derailed by aliens, psychic traitors, or his new wife.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. Well, you’ve made me want to read this one, Kat!

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    I felt pretty much as you did regarding this wild and crazy Dick book, Kat. It also bothered me that the author never really gives us a good description of those Vugs. Still, I found the book to be as fun as can be. Just don’t expect it to make 100% sense and you’ll be OK. Still, it holds together a LOT better than “Lies, Inc,” doesn’t it?

    • Yes, I wondered if I was supposed to know the Vugs from another book, in fact. There are a lot of things missing from this story, but you’re right — it’s way better than Lies, Inc!

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