Get ready for a flood of P.K. Dick novel reviews, since I am getting caught up on old reading. I even went out of my way to order all the ones I didn’t buy yet on powells.com, and they are going to arrive any time soon.
The Game Players of Titan is the typical P.K. Dick novel: an uncertain society after a catastrophic development, extraterrestrial life (in this case not imagined), a mystery to solve, and an unusual setting with a great many surprises.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second-largest moon in the solar system. It is quite notable because it’s the only moon with a real atmosphere, and hence there has been speculation it might harbor life. In this particular case, it’s life that (a) is silicon-based, (b) communicates between themselves and to humans telepathically, and (c) is not well disposed to humans, a race almost destroyed.
Short summary of the story line: Earthlings have managed to almost wipe themselves out thanks to a form of radiation that sterilizes them. Started by the Red Chinese, the bogeyman of the book, a radiation war has rendered humans almost extinct. Fortunately, longevity has been increased immensely and humans reach the hundreds of years quite routinely.
The alien race, the vugs, has begun interaction with humans. What started as a war ended in a peace treaty that sees the two races coexist peacefully, if uncomfortably. Humans resent the vugs, while the vugs think of humans as a disappearing anomaly.
Vugs are fond of games, and they force humans to solve their problems in a game, Bluff, they play with mating in the background. So humans form couples that perform on the game and sexually, and whoever conceives a child wins big.
The remaining Earthlings are divided in two castes: the bindsmen, who own land, and the non-bindsmen, that don’t and are hence excluded from the game, where land is the currency used.
The book starts when the bindsman of Berkeley, California, loses his bind to a different player after an alcohol and drug binge. The story is about his attempt to get his bind back, which ends up requiring the destruction of a ring of vugs trying to eliminate mankind.
Of all of Dick’s books I’ve read so far, this is the first one in which insanity is palpable. It’s presented as a mere accessory of the plot, in which it is ancillary or causing agent of PSI abilities, but its description is so vivid, so clear, so present that I would wonder if the author had psychotic episodes even without knowing he actually had them.
Madness and the inability to distinguish the real from the imagined pervade the book, and till the very end it was unclear whether we could finally settle down on a series of assumptions that actually work.
Even where there are impartial viewers that can tell reality from madness, a role played by cars in the book, their coldness and remoteness makes sanity sound robotic, insane.
All in all, one of the best Dick novels I’ve read. It is powerful in the same way that Burrough’s Naked Lunch has power: it presents you with a world that doesn’t exist, except in the mind of the author, and then forces you to admit you don’t know reality that well, either. As I put down both books, I distinctly recall thinking: man are you boring!