Philip K. Dick, “The Game-Players of Titan” (1963): The Life of the Ruling Class

The standard hero in a Philip K. Dick novel is a member of an alienated middle or professional class.  Often these people are functionaries or technocrats of state or, more commonly, corporate interests.  They are rarely people who have power in their right, but neither are they from the very bottom.  Yes, there are more working class figures peppered throughout his novels, but by in large we seen society from the educated middle, serving various forces in power.  On the face of it, the characters in The Game-Players of Titan are much more powerful.  They remind us immediately of the capitalist class of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, playing games with the mortgages, pensions, retirement funds, and bank accounts of the rest of us.  The stakes of these games are high.  They drove millions from their homes and jobs and squandered a generation of national and private wealth.  Yet, from their perspective, they lost little.  Even if they lost a million here or a million there, they still could come home to a children and home well-tended by immigrant workers, dinner parties, nights at the opera, and massive back accounts.  For them the losses were abstract, and fungible.  Their endless wealth ruined any possible perspective they could have on value.  The Game-Players of Titan opens with a game of Bluff.  The stakes of the contest?  Nothing less than the entire city of Berkeley and the identity of his future wife (they also swap wives as a function of the game).  The setting is a stunningly familiar model of the global (late) capitalist class.  Their massive wealth, massive power, complete indifference to the damage they cause, they inability to notice their own psychopathy, and their loose sexual morality predicts the nature of the late capitalist elite.  On this last point, not really mentioned by Dick, we should always recall the high divorce rate among the elite as they condemn the family values of the working poor.  (See Was Bill Cosby Right by Michael Dyson and Yo Mama’s Dysfunctional by Robin Kelley.)


The Game-Players of Titan is a condemnation of the values, lifestyle, power, and indifference of the ruling class.  Now I should say that most of the Earth is depopulated in the novel, creating the context of low states, but it seems to me that from the perspective of the ruling elite there are not that many people who actually matter.  Their gaze obscures the vast majority of us.  Living in gated communities, moving around cities by helicopters or limousines, attending exclusive parties, and opening night receptions the elite can go through life without an awareness of the very existence of most of us.  Dick uses the science-fiction tool of low fertility and dwindling post-apocalyptic populations to suggest how the “game-players” see us.  If a couple tens of millions of the underclass disappeared, it would barely register within the gated communities.  It may not even affect the cost of labor, a detail they have long ago passed onto middle managers.  So what do we know about these game-players in the novel?  First, they cheat when they can using pre-cogs to gain advantage over others.  Second, they are often massive users of drugs.  Third, they are sexually promiscuous despite having an institutionalized system for wife swapping.  Fourth, they carry on irrational grudges over the ownership of property that they cannot ever dream of getting a handle on (the protagonist’s loss of Berkeley, for instance).  They are delusion, degenerate, and disgusting.


Our two worlds.  Gated communities and slums.

Our two worlds. Gated communities and slums.

The game players have internalized the values of capitalism, competition, and power in all aspects of life. “But marriage had always been primarily an economic entity, Schilling reflected as he steered his auto-auto up into the early-morning New Mexico sky.  The vugs hadn’t invented that; they had merely intensified an already existing condition.  Marriage had to do with the transmission of property, of lines of inheritance.  And of cooperation in career-lines as well.  All this emerged explicitly in The Game and dominated conditions; The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before.”  They have institutionalized liquid relationships while justifying the system with capitalist logic.  This is not to say that they are not correct about the original purpose of marriage, but while most of us still believe in love and commitment and all that stuff, they have already remembered that marriage is simply another business proposition.

The Terran game players are not the only center of power.  The “vugs”, the benevolent overseers of The Game, and essentially the distant rulers of Earth also exist and from time to time interfere in the affairs of the humans.  They play a role of moderating and regulating The Game. Much of the plot of the novel deals with the interactions between the game-players and these “vugs,” including a resistance movement brewing against their rule.  We do not have the equivalent of the “vugs” in our world, and we should probably be thankful for that.  Our resistance to the game-players in our world must from below, from outside of the gated community.  If it comes from above, it promises only more domination.

Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

In A Maze of Death, Philip K. Dick tries to show us that an alternative reality can lead to the perception of freedom, if not freedom itself.  In the novel, fourteen lost spaceship residents, establish a collective delusion for cathartic reasons.  This delusion is cathartic, provides some limited illusion of freedom, and wastes their time.  The novel might be compared to The Matrix or eXistenZ with its reliance on an alternative reality.  In eXistenZ, the approach is more playful and the reality is always hidden under another layer of delusion to the point the characters do not know where they are.  A Maze of Death presents us with a reality that is brutal and horrible, fourteen progressively insane members of a lost at space spaceship crew with murderous impulses and no hope of escape.  In The Matrix, of course, the delusion is created as a means of exploitation and social control.  The film-makers believe that reality is preferable to delusion and the struggle for freedom comes from escaping the fantasy.  A Maze of Death show us that opposite.  People find their freedom in the fantasy.  Reality is a prison.  Even if the freedom in the fantasy is sexual excess, murder, or a host of conspiracy theories and paranoid, at least it allows us to live out our passions, rather than confining them?


A question arises by the time you get to the end of A Maze of Death.  If these fourteen people hate each other so deeply and use stimulated realities to, in part, work out their hostilities against each other, why do they not simply murder each other in reality?  Their mission is lost and they have no hope for salvation.  Perhaps the answer is that in reality, despite their unique circumstances, they are still bound by the rules of society.  Philip K. Dick may be saying that our lives are really akin to these fourteen lost in space.  Any freedom we have is a delusion.  We are bound by social obligations beyond any reason.  We have at best a bottle-up disgust for the other members of our species.  We escape into fantasies (television series, adulterous relationships, myths of the happy family, raising children, irrelevant political battles, cruises to Jamaica that never show us anything of Jamaica beyond the resort) because this is the one way we can escape the horror of our enslavement.  It is a false freedom, of course.  To fight for freedom in the realm of the real would require a revolution.  This is something neither we nor the crew members of ship are capable of.  Whatever optimism Dick had in humanity and our capacity to achieve solidarity (expressed in Now Wait for Last Year) is missing in A Maze of Death.  When one fantasy breaks down, they have no choice but to start another one.  In a sense, the hope lies in there.  Overtime our fantasies lose the ability to sustain our interest so we must at some point face reality, each other, and the chains that bind us.

The theological system collectively created by the participants in the fantasy is not uninteresting.  In this particular version, God exists in four different parts.  It is much like Hinduism, where God is divided into Brahma (the creator), Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the sustainer).  Here the four aspects of the divine are the Intercessor, the Mentufacturer, the Form Destroyer, and the Walker on Earth (closer perhaps to the Holy Spirit or a Buddhist Bodhisattva).  There is a mechanical system by which people can request help from these different avatars through “prayers,” which are not so different from requests to superiors.  Indeed, the first character we meets treats his prayer just like this, asking for and receiving a transfer to a new location.  In this reality, the truth of the divine is uncontested.  Not only are prayers really answered and direct connections to the divine explicable via natural law, but the Walker on Earth is experienced directly by one of the characters.  Created by the participants through a method of collective will (I am reminded of the Jungian psychology here), this theological design is not far from what people really want from their God.

Another layer of the delusion, is that the characters are given an important task.  Again, this is something that is clearly lacking in reality.  On the ship, they are no different from millions of people in office jobs, teaching jobs, government bureaucracies who know that their work is meaningless.

So in their fantasy, they create an important task, consisted with their skills and training.  Everyone has an important task that is worked into the fantasy.  On the surface, they are sent to begin the settlement of a planet Delmak-O and they all have an important task (a psychologist, a linguist, a computers specialist, a repairman, a custodian, a sexy secretary, etc.).  Conveniently, the mission is never explicitly stated, so they can only know they each have an essential role, they cannot know what that role is.  One of the many fantasies of late capitalism is that we matter, that our job has a purpose, that the world needs us.  Liquid relationships proves that this is not even true of our children.  If we die, there is a step-mother waiting at the bar on the corner – more beautiful, more playful, and with a higher income.

The solution to the dilemma of late capitalism, to the world that we live in, is not more fantasies of freedom.  It is to realize our slavery, our insignificance, our hatreds and our passions.  We should wake up to the chains around us and fight to smash them as described in Lu Xun’s iron house parable.  “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?  But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. ”