The Game Players of Titan is very much a classic Philip K. Dick novel. It contains all the elements that we have come to expect; post-apocalyptic setting, self destructive male characters, confusion as to what is real, and so on, not to mention weird, trippy, hallucinations which are plentiful and important in this novel.
The story takes place at some unspecified time in the future when the Earth has twice been devastated , first by war with the telepatic, slug-like ‘Vugs’ from Titan, and secondly (in a nice slice of cold war paranoia) by a new and particularly evil form of radiation developed by a Nazi doctor and used by the ‘red Chinese’ in an attempt to stop the Vugs. Unfortunately, this attempt has backfired and left the human race decimated and, for the most part sterile.
The story revolves around the titular ‘Game’, imported from titan by the vugs who appear to feel some remorse for what has happened to the Earth. We never know the exact rules but it appears to be a cross between Monopoly and poker. The game serves to allow people to win (or lose) property, as well as to form new marriages in the hope that, with one of their wives/husbands, everyone can eventually have children. It is played with a partner, usually a husband or wife and in groups of around five partnerships.
The main character is Pete Garden. The blurb on the back of my copy says that “he was the finest game player this side of Titan. His skill had already won him half of California and eighteen wives”. However, despite this, in true PKD style, he is depressed and spends a lot of his time contemplating suicide.
At first, the story seems to be fairly straightforward, about a big east coast businessman trying to muscle in on Pete’s territory in california. However, (hooray for PKD), the story soon turns into a nightmarish whirl of delusion, precognition and conspiracy.
The Game Players Of Titan is not one of PKD’s most celebrated works, indeed, one Amazon visitor describes it as “The worst thing I have ever read, Sci-fi or otherwise”. While it is not up in the same league as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, it is still, in my opinion, a very entertaining book and, if you can suspend your disbelief over some of the more flimsy plot elements, it is is well worth hunting it down.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
Throughout his career, PKD would alternate between writing pure science fiction and more ‘mainstream’ novels. The Game Players of Titan definitetly swings towards the side of pure sci-fi and it contains many elements that would definitely be at home in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’
As I said before, this book is not one of PKD’s best known, nor by any means his best. Only the most blinkered, hardcore Dickheads would find nothing to complain about.
For a start, many of the plot elements are fairly flimsy. The idea of the game controlling everything is a little hard to swallow and the events following Lucky Luckman’s murder could be taken from any one of about a thousand different stories. Most irritating to me was the poor character development, even by PKD standards, Pete Garden is a cliche and so much more could have been made of some of the other characters, particularly Mary Anne McClain.
However, the book is not all bad. Towards the end, the story gets a lot more interesting and there are some interesting and thought provoking musings on the effects of precognition and the nature of perception which add a lot of colour to the novel, including a particularly good interlude when the Vugs are looking down at the earth from Titan and we get some idea of how they see the Earth.
I particularly enjoyed some of the smaller elements that are truly imaginative, exciting or just funny. The way that the Vugs are finally beaten at the game is very cunning and the last few paragraphs have a bit of a sting. I also like the way that the Vugs at first appear slightly helpless before their true nature is revealed. The Vug policeman E.B. Black has a name tag stitched to it, which I found an unaccountably funny image.
Overall then, The Game Players Of Titan is not going to make the ‘Best of Phillip K Dick’ shortlist, but in my opinion it is an entertaining book, that does not require you to think too hard (or at any rate, doesn’t break your mind like some of PKD’s other novels) and definitely rewards a second reading. Despite what some people will tell you, the book is nowhere near as bad as say, The Ganymede Takeover and any true PKD fan who perseveres past the first few chapters will find it an enjoyable read.
Agree or disagree? Add a comment below.
One thought on “Review by Iain Mathieson: The Game Players Of Titan (1963)”
This was one of the first SF novels of Phil Dick’s that I read. I had previously only encountered ‘The Variable Man’ in a short story collection. That was more hard SF and I at first I didn’t ‘get’ the psychological off the wall approach to reality bending SF that made Dick famous. The Vugs could appear ‘human’, for instance, although E.B. Black as a Vug official is not allowed to; and since the ‘Winchester device’ that controlled autonomic machines like cabs only obeyed humans they had to be able to tell them apart. Psi powers were big in fiction then so some of Dick’s characters have them in this book, just as they did in Alfred Bester’s novels.
The final game of Bluff is like the last reel of an old style Mission Impossible TV show, when everything seemingly goes pear shaped and the flawed but resourceful game players have to think on their seats.