“The Game Players of Titan” is what “Casino Royale” would have been had it been written by Philip K Dick rather than Ian Fleming. There are secret organizations, a murder mystery, battles between opposing ideologies, torture, and above all a game played for huge stakes: the ownership of Berkeley, New York City, and ultimately the Earth itself. But, since it's PKD we also find post-apocalyptic societies, aliens, people with telepathic and telekinetic abilities, and mounds of psychological intrigue and paranoia. Oh, and drugs.
After the war against the vugs, aliens from Saturn’s moon Titan, ends in an uneasy truce Earth is left underpopulated, and the humans are having problems procreating. As part of the treaty some vugs are left on Earth, either as observers, or perhaps in penance, it’s not clear. The vugs are avid gamblers and help organize Bluff, a sociopolitical game designed pair up lucky couples in hopes of repopulating the human race, which is waning due to radiation poisoning. While many people hope to “get lucky” and have children, the game also has incentives in terms of land and power. Pete Garden, Bindman of Berkeley and Marin County participates in the game with his local group Pretty Blue Fox.
As the story begins Pete has just lost the Bind of Berkeley, leaving their group open to an outsider, a big operator from the East Coast called Lucky Luckman who has been trying to get a toehold on the West Coast real estate. Only problem is, someone murders Luckman on the night of the first big game, and Pete not only doesn’t have an alibi, he can't even remember what he did on the day Luckman was killed. The authorities assign two detectives, a human called Hawthorne partnered with a vug named E.B. Black, to investigate the case. There’s plenty of intrigue, with vugs psionically posing as humans, pre-cog special agents, and ultimately the high-stakes game. At the finale the Pretty Blue Fox group is whisked off to Titan to play the vugs in their own game of Bluff, with Earth as the stake.
During the course of the story Dick plays with variations on telepathy and precognition. When we first meet Luckman there’s this short interaction:
“I have Dave Mutreaux on the vid,” his secretary said. “He’s standing by. Do you want to speak to him personally?”
“If he’s a genuine pre-cog,” Luckman said, “he already know what I want, so there’s no need for me or anyone else to speak to the zwepp.” The paradoxes of pre-cognition always amused and irked him. “Cut the circuit, Sid, and if he never shows up here it proves he’s no good.”
Sid, obediently, cut the circuit; the screen died. “But let me point out,” Sid said, “you never spoke to him, so there never was anything for him to preview. Isn’t that right?”
Most authors would be content to spice up the story with one or two psionic abilities, but Dick adds pscyho-kinesis, psionic brainwashing, and the ability to toss people through matter itself. One of my favorite twists is where a telepath scans a precog, giving her his future peering ability.
Dick also delves into the possibility that drugs can bring latent psi abilities into action. As the one vug says to Pete, “you were an involuntary telepath; you were psychotic, because of those pills and the drinking, and you picked up my marginal thoughts, all my anxieties. What they used to call the subconscious.” While characters in earlier novels used drugs, “Game Players” is the first Dick book where drugs give characters exceptional abilities that affect the external world. He would continue to explore this theme through the rest of the sixties and seventies, most notably in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.” It’s one of the aspects of Dick’s stories that hasn’t truly been integrated into the movie versions of his work.
Speaking of drugs, according to an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Dick said that most of his books from before 1970 were written on speed. At times this book feels like that. It’s sprinkled with interesting bits, tossed out almost at random and without the benefit of an editor. The names of the game groups, Pretty Blue Fox and Straw Man Special for example, sound like they came from Dick tossing the I Ching. Also, for some reason all the vugs have initials for first names: E.B. Black, E.G. Philipson, U.S. Cummings. He also gives most cars and appliances built-in AIs, which are based on something called the Rushmore Effect. The end result is a very chatty environment in a sparsely populated world. It also provides a way for the car to disclose Pete Garden’s whereabouts even though he himself can’t remember what happened. Dick also includes the detail that most humans have had their Hynes Gland removed, which extends their lifespan to several hundred years.
In all, “The Game Players of Titan” is a packed book that heralds the beginning of the themes Dick would write about for the rest of his life.
The back cover of “The Game Players of Titan”
The strange creatures from this satellite could appear human or inhuman, at will. And the elaborate contest they set up with the remnants of Earth’s humanity was just as treacherous.
For though the war had been fought to a stalemate, the unending series of gambles could upset that truce -- and end the world.