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 sluglike 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.
The Game-Players of Titan is both satire and adventure, examining the ties that bind people together and the maddening peccadilloes of bureaucracy, whether the bureaucrats are humans or aliens.
©1991 Laura Coehlo, Christopher Dick, Isa Hackett (P)2012 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
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"Game, set, match!"
"Anyhow, Pete Garden, you were psychotic and drunk and on amphetamines and hallucinating, but basically you perceived the reality that confronts us…"
― Philip K. Dick, The Game-Players of Titan
Books seem to float into my life in pairs, like aces, kings, or quite often twos. I guess I could count "The Game-Players of Titan" as my second gambling novel in a month. The first was Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy: A Novel. There is something fascinating by the whole literary genre of game novels (King, Queen, Knave, The Glass Bead Game, Oscar and Lucinda, The Gambler, Daniel Deronda*, The Music of Chance*, and more).
Games of chance and skill allow good writers to look into some of life's big questions of causation, death, love with the ability to dance between the coldness of luck/chance and the warmth of skill. Philip K. Dick uses the basics of a game of chance to introduce the idea of a group of people on Earth who gamble not for small stakes, but for cities and counties. Pots are filled with Berkeley and Detroit instead of watches and coins. Add to this mix, drugs, paranoia, aliens, and the pot both thickens and grows.
I usually walk away from a Dick novel amazed in the same way I'm amazed at Darwin. You see what he did, understand the idea almost instantly, and kick yourself for not being born first and thinking in a way that produces the end result. Dick seems naturally talented at looking at the world from a slightly warped perspective. He seems to both float in a latescent (lactescent?) zone by himself, but at the same time he is able to hold onto the teats of the world tight enough to squeeze out an amazing story every couple years. There is a reason I keep coming back to PKD -- either he is crazy or I am.
* I have yet to read these.
Flying talking cars. Telepathic, precognitive and telekinetic abilities. Benevolent alien invaders who look like giant slugs. Nearly ubiquitous sterility depopulating a planet of nearly immortal humans. Drugs, psychosis, hallucination. Welcome to one of the many worlds of PKD. What makes this world that much more unique is the game of Bluff, a board game reminiscent of the Game of Life in which the stakes are all too real -- wives, lives, property, social status.
Written in 1963 and featuring a weapon of mass destruction invented by the East Germans and detonated by Red China, TGPoT can be easily interpreted in the context of its Cold War era -- how suburban Americans adapt to being conquered by "alien" invaders (50s-60s sci-fi aliens always acting as analogues for the Red Menace, the Communist threat). Also in the context of the time, the dawn of the hippie era, the book (in part) can be read as a prescient analysis of free love and drug use (much like David Ely's Seconds, written in the same year and made into a memorable movie a couple of years later).
But most of all, TGPoT is just plain fun. Never mind the jumble of ideas and themes, the SF analogies of real-life social and political currents, which are not always coherent. PKD's characters just love to play the game, they live to play the game, and in the end they have to play the game of their lives, literally. Looking well past 1963 to present-day issues, there are universal elements at play of how ordinary lives are manipulated by social, economic and political forces that sometimes seem like nothing more than a cruel high-stakes game.
I started out reading PKD's unparalleled Androids (the basis for Blade Runner) but have since been disappointed by his other novels, even the most widely praised (High Castle). This one was just too much fun to deny. Definitely worth a listen.
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