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The Game-players of Titan

by Philip K Dick

(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 223 pages, paperback; first published 1963; this edition 20 August 2001.)

Philip K. Dick published this novel in cover scan1963, between the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, and the excellent Martian Time-Slip. He was the archetypal erratic writer, producing novels of variable quality (and often novels which varied in quality from chapter to chapter, page to page, and paragraph to paragraph--okay, even line to line, too) one after the other. The Game-Players of Titan is not classic Dick.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth, the Red Chinese having dosed the planet, themselves included, with Hinkel Radiation. This has had the effect of vastly reducing the Earth's population and rendering the majority of the survivors infertile. Around the same time, the secret of extended longevity was discovered, so that most of the characters are in their mid-hundreds. Also, many humans have psi-talents, telepathy, precognition, telekinesis. And there exist among the humans a privileged minority called Bindmen, who own vast tracts of depopulated land. Added to which, aliens now run the show: the vugs from Titan, slug-like creatures addicted to gambling, who have imposed upon the Bindmen the game of Bluff. Teams of Bindmen play the card game for stakes of land and sexual partners. Ostensibly the vugs imposed the gaming upon the humans to maximise the chances of permutating fertile couples, but, of course, in the novels of Philip K. Dick, reality is never that straightforward.

This book has all the essential ingredients of a good Dick novel, but falls a long way short of being even mediocre. The writing is perfunctory. The characterisation is sketched: protagonist Pete Garden is neither fully-realised nor sympathetic--unusual for a Dickian central character. The plot suffers longueurs of inaction followed by spurts of under-realised drama. The denouement is rushed and unsatisfactory. In short, this is very minor Dick--but, coming as it did between two of the genre's classics, perhaps he can be forgiven.

Harder to forgive is the publisher's cynical packaging of this novel. It's presented in the Voyager Classic series, along with some genuinely good books: Brave New World, The Martian Chronicles, The Time Ships. The publication of this novel in this format commits a triple disservice. It gives the reader new to Dick the impression they're getting good Philip K. Dick; it gives the reader new to SF the idea that they're getting good SF, and it tends to devalue the good books put out under this imprint.

If you haven't read PKD before, try The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Flow my Tears the Policeman Said, as a start.

The Game-Players of Titan is for completists only.

Review by Eric Brown.

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