06 August 2008

The Game Players of Titan: Speed Kills

The Game-Players of Titan
Philip K. Dick

Bindman Peter Garden has just lost his wife and the city of Berkeley in The Game. Luckily he still owns Marin County.

Winning or losing at the game of Bluff (a strange hybrid of Monopoly and poker) determines what property one owns and with whom one attempts to have "luck" (i.e., a sexual encounter resulting in conception). In other words, nothing unusual for a PKD novel.

In this imagined post-apocalyptic world, the human population has dwindled almost to nothing as the result of the "Hinkel Radiation" unleashed 130 years previously during a war between the US and China. (The protagonists have survived for over a century because of the removal of something called the Hynes Gland --- a standard pseudoscientific PKD plot device.) The circumstances are hazy, but it seems that after this war there was some sort of military interaction between the Terrans and the the vugs, a species of gelatinous, silicon-based telepaths from Saturn's moon Titan, which ended in a concordat and a permanent alien presence on Earth. This presence resulted in the establishment of the game of Bluff as a way of randomly mating humans in the hopes of finding fertile, "lucky" combinations.

Garden is determined to win back the city of Berkeley and to roll himself a new wife in the process. Unfortunately for him, the man who won Berkeley immediately turned it over to a broker who in turn sold it to Jerome "Lucky" Luckman of New York City. Luckman, who owns almost all the properties on the Eastern seaboard, can't wait to begin his conquest of the West coast. As Luckman prepares to make his move (literally and figuratively), Garden contacts Joe Schilling, a Bindman-turned-record-collector who lost his properties and status to Luckman in an earlier competition, and subsequently encounters the lovely Patricia McClain, a woman who lives in Garden's Marin territory with her husband and their children. It seems that, unlike most folks, the McClains have been blessed with much luck, even if they aren't game-playing Bindmen.

The California Bluff group, inexplicably named Pretty Blue Fox, gets a new member in the form of Carol Holt, who has been transferred from another gaming group, Straw Man Special, to marry Pete and play with his team. The ceremony, such as it is, is surreal:
Patience Angst said, "I'm vows giver this week, Bill. I'll administer the ceremony." She brought out the group ring which she passed to Pete Garden; Pete stood beside Carol Holt, who had not yet recovered from the news about Lucky Luckman. "Carol and Peter, we are gathered here to witness your entering into holy matrimony. Terran and Titanian law cojoin to empower me to ask you if you voluntarily acquiesce to this sacred and legal binding." (p. 43)

The institution is so sacred and holy, in fact, that it can be dissolved with the roll of the dice or calling of a bluff. (Dick does point out that since marriage was always implicitly about transmission of property and inheritance, "The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before" (p. 54).) Yet Garden doesn't want to play with his new wife; he wants to play with Schilling, and after he loses his first game against Luckman with Carol as his partner, his resolve to play with Schilling only intensifies. Garden also has the hots for Pat McClain, which doesn't help matters, and so he chases after her, discovering in the process that she is a telepath. She reads his subconscious and discovers something there indicating that he that he may commit some sort of a violent act in the near future that results in a death. On that note, he leaves.
The next thing he knew he was riding in his car, high over the desert.
He knew, instantly, that it was much later. (p. 62)

It turns out that Garden has been in a fugue state for over two hours, during which time he has traveled from Marin to Carmel to Berkeley to San Francisco to the East coast. It is during this final cross-country flight that he awakens. And panics. Soon thereafter he discovers that Luckman has disappeared, although "discovers" is an odd word in this case because during his fugue state, it was Garden who was informing everyone else about Luckman's disappearance.
Facing the members of the group Pretty Blue Fox, Bill Calumine said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Jerome Luckman has been murdered and every one of us is a suspect. That's the situation. There isn't much more I can tell you at this time. Naturally, there will no Game-playing tonight." (p. 71)

As a consequence of Luckman's murder, Pretty Blue Fox is disbanded by the joint Terran-Titanian authorities until the murderer can be identified. Here's where the novel starts coming apart at the seams.

The authorities use their telepathy on the suspects and discover a blank space in Garden's mind, indicating his lost two hours. Memories begin appearing in people's minds as if they are being implanted. Carol reveals to Pete that they have had luck --- she has conceived --- and so Pete does what any man would do when told by his wife that he will be a Dad; he goes on a methamphetamine-spiked drunk that melts down into a full psychotic episode. During this episode, Garden visits Dr. Philipson, a famous therapist in Pocatello, Idaho, where he begins to suspect that many of the people around him are in fact vugs using their telepathic powers to disguise themselves as humans and manipulate others to their own ends. But are they really vugs or is this just an effect of the psychosis? He relies on the Rushmore Effect (i.e., a modest form of artificial intelligence) in his auto-auto to help him discern vug from human, since the Rushmore Effect cannot succumb to a drug-fueled breakdown. And it turns out that his seemingly crazed experiences are actually quite lucid --- there is a conspiracy of vugs manipulating humanity and suppressing human reproduction.

This is not a conspiracy of all vugs, though. Later in the novel Schilling and his attorney Laird Sharp learn from Dr. Philipson that Titanian attitudes toward Earth and humanity are divided; the dominant political force comprises the moderates who love to gamble and solve problems through gamesmanship (or is that gamesvugship?) while a small faction of extremists is deliberately holding down the human population. The latter are the ones who killed Luckman; not because he is unusually lucky at the game but because he is unusually lucky at fathering children. At least, this is what Dr. Philipson says before the Rushmore Effect in his car confirms that he is, in fact, a vug himself. With this revelation, Philipson uses his specialized psionic power to teleport the two to "a great plain, on which vugs, unmoving, rested at fixed spaces. ... This is Titan, a voice said inside [Schilling's] head" (pp. 153-4).

Schilling and Laird make it back to Earth to confront Philipson and discover that he is indeed a vug and an extremist to boot. Joe convinces Pete that they must reform Pretty Blue Fox and play the Game-Players of Titan, a prospect that sounds impossible --- while the vugs have no qualms about using their telepathic manipulations to win, human telepaths are barred from playing the game. Seemingly loyal allies reveal themselves to be pawns of the vug extremists, complicating matters so much that by page 185, it is almost impossible to sort out precisely who is on what side, what is the plot of the novel, and why the reader is still plodding along. With only 30 pages to go, though, the reader plods and is rewarded by a scene of Garden reaching into his pocket and finding his last two methamphetamine hydrochloride pills. He uses these to induce another psychotic quasi-telepathic state and somehow this allows him, his team, and humanity to win their game against the Game-Players of Titan.


Many critics heap praise upon this novel and laud it as one of Dick's finest. Maybe they all read it while on methamphetamines (demonstrating definitively that meth is a dangerous drug). Maybe they are vugs disguised as humans. Whatever the reasoning behind their assessment of this novel, I disagree wholeheartedly. This was easily the most confusing dog's breakfast of a novel I've read thus far in the course of the "PKD Project." Put it this way --- it had me yearning for the straightforward banality of Vulcan's Hammer. We know that Dick was literally "cranking" out much of his work during this time period, and so I suspect that the themes, as well as the style of this novel came directly from his amped experience; too bad that illicit knowledge didn't make the book any more fun to read.

There was an anti-methamphetamine ad campaign in the early 1970s whose slogan was "Speed Kills." Though I'm still alive, after reading this book I think I know what those ads were getting at.