Friday, 13 July 2012

The Game-Players Of Titan by Philip K Dick

 Philip K Dick
The Game-Players Of Titan

The quality and / or success of a Philip K Dick novel could well be measured in how many of its ideas have worked their way into popular culture, or have simply been stolen by other writers. That is especially true for TV (the more I read, the more is see what a PKD fan Stephen Moffat must be). The Game-Players Of Titan is interesting in that it now feels like a development in progress that Dick himself pilfered from later in his career.

Structurally it bares some resemblance to earlier works, in particular Vulcan’s Hammer in that a vast, sinister plot is slowly revealed in fairly pedestrian, human terms. As ever with Dick’s work, these events happen to seemingly normal people (though with severe paranoiac issues, naturally) but the looser style of his later years has not yet developed. The narrative is held pretty tight throughout, bar later scenes that do resemble the unsettling, beyond reality experiences encountered by characters in stories like A Scanner Darkly or even VALIS, but they are merely hints. It is in this sense that it works as an interesting prelude to his later, greater work.

The plot itself revolves around a decimated post-intergalactic war torn Earth, in which certain parts of society play The Game, a board game of sorts that requires players to bluff one another. The stakes, that we witness, are large stretches of a derelict America, now overseen by the victorious, but oddly unobtrusive Titan race. Sounds a little B-Movie esqe, admittedly, but a lot of PKD stories do, when laid out. This idea of bluffing is played out nicely across the narrative as various sci-fi traits - people with telepathic and pre cognitive skills and an alien race able to take human form – are added to the mix, drawing out the typically Dickensian paranoia and mistrust centrally to many of his plots.

The Pre-cogs in particular tie this book closely to the superior Ubik released six years later. In that, various combinations of PSI people are used to a similarly disconcerting effect and the general sense of a world not seeming to be exactly what it is – as with almost every PKD book – is completely evident. The only real difference here is that the central idea is not as complete as something like Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. The plotting is sharper, with more distinct beginning, middle and end sections but it loses some of the wild abandon of later works. So, whilst being interesting in its own right, it also feels transitionary.

The most striking images from the book are of the empty American landscapes. Very much a book of The Cold War, part of the narrative has it that the ‘Red Chinese’ released a biological agent that rendered the majority of Earth’s population sterile, meaning it only holds about 2 million people in total. So we get lots of scenes of characters flying over empty cities and states, whilst trading Salt Lake City for Las Vegas in The Game like they were bottle caps. It reminded me most of the affective scenes from 28 Days / Weeks Later of a disserted London. It is very different from other PKD works, which rely on a claustrophobia of space or technology.

It’s odd to say it, but perhaps the only problem with The Game-Players Of Titan is that it isn’t crazy enough. Or perhaps not human enough. The central conceit doesn’t quite tilt your perspective of the world the way his best works do. But, with all the hallmarks of a typical PKD book, and his easily flowing style intact, it is engaging all the same and is recommended to fans, though not a classic; more a sign of things to come.

Dean Freeman

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