Monday, August 22, 2016

#188: The Game-Players of Titan, #12: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Game-Players of Titan:

"Wives, Schilling thought. More of a problem than an asset. The economic aspect of our lives should never have been melded hopelessly with the sexual; it makes things too complex."
" 'Did you have a psychotic episode tonight?'
   'Not by a long shot. I had a moment of absolute truth.' "
"But greed not so bad; it's the prime motivating pressure of the self-system. Psychologically speaking."
Being a long-time Philip K. Dick fan, I tend to feel at home when I crack open a new PKD novel to read. Granted, that home is usually a place of drug-addled, psychedelic confusion, but of course, if you've read a few PKD novels, you already know that. The Game-Players of Titan does not deviate radically from the rather wide-ranging set of tropes that PKD usually writes about --yes, there are drugs; yes, there are mysterious aliens; yes, psychosis figures heavily into the plot; yes, there is a vindictive and somewhat nasty female character involved. And, as always, PKD casts us into a truly original story in order to explore his usual themes.
This time around, as is often the case, we find ourselves on a near-future Earth (sometime around the 2100s) where things have changed dramatically. Earth has lost a war with the inhabitants of Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and is now, more or less, occupied territory. The vast majority of Earth's inhabitants have apparently been rendered sterile by radiation from a weapon used by the Red Chinese many decades ago. As a result, only a few million people remain on Earth, and the population is not being replenished. The "vugs" --the Titanian race that defeated Earth a while back, who appear in the form of amorphous blobs-- make appearances here and there, but for the most part, it seems that the defeated Earthlings are left to their own devices. What many of them do is play a game called Bluff, a board game that, as its name suggests, involves bluffing your opponents effectively in order to win the most loot. At stake in these games are entire towns, large amounts of money, and spouses.
At the novel's inception, PKD drops us in on Pete Garden, who was just lost Berkeley, California and his wife Freya in a game of Bluff. Pete is very much a typical PKD protagonist (and, I suspect, very much like PKD himself). He's not a bad guy, but he's a mess, mentally. He's suicidal, he's on a ton of pills, and he seems to lack direction in life. His luck doesn't change when, soon after his big loss, Pete finds out that Jerome Luckman --one of the best and luckiest Bluff players in the U.S-- comes to join his cohort. Into all of this, PKD sprinkles talking, sentient cars (which are generally nastier than the taxi cab in PKD's Now Wait for Last Year), telepaths, pre-cogs, and a character with psychokinesis. Then, a murder occurs, an instance of mass amnesia conveniently crops up, and we're off to the races.
In the first two-thirds or so of the novel, The Game-Players of Titan reads like a more rushed version of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Murder mystery is a sub-genre that fits PKD's skill set very well, and I think the great use of suspense and all-around craziness we find here (and in Flow My Tears) confirms this fact. Once again, PKD keeps us guessing --but if one has read enough PKD, one knows that none of one's guesses are likely to be totally correct. His knack for making the reader paranoid about every character (including, and especially, the lens character), even paranoid about the nature of reality itself, is once again on display here. Furthermore PKD's world building --quick and casually done, yet complex and full of minor clues and hints as to what's really going on-- is, as always, a joy to behold. PKD often gets done in the first 50 pages what most writers fail to do in an entire book: create a quirky, detailed world that feels real, yet somehow wrong, plastic, fake, at the same time.
As I mentioned, this novel certainly feels rushed, and for this reason, I don't think it makes it to the upper echelon of PKD works. There are some repetitive moments that make this novel feel very much like a hastily written first draft (which many of PKD's novels are), as well as some awkward, clunky lines and sentences. Some scenes feel rushed, even given the already-frantic pace of the novel. In addition, (although this is to be expected to some degree in PKD novels) things get overwhelmingly twisted and confusing at a few points, as the characters are buffeted by the forces of drugs, aliens, and psychic power. Overall, there are some points where PKD could have given us a bit more clarity, while still maintaining a certain sense of disorientation in his readers. This is very much a personal judgment call, though, so I wouldn't be surprised to have a different opinion the next time I read this book.
One part of this novel that especially stood out to me was the way that psychosis so clearly becomes an avenue to a certain kind of truth and a certain kind of good. When Pete Garden figures out how to beat the Titanians at their own game, near the novel's conclusion, I said to myself, "This is the most PKD solution to a problem that you'll ever encounter." Mental illness's close relation to telepathy in this novel is simply vintage PKD. I also enjoyed the hints at Lacanian/ Hegellian philosophies of self-formation in some of the more psychedelic scenes in the novel. As always, PKD shows that he is well-versed in philosophy, and isn't just throwing together a bunch of random ideas that pop into his head...although it might seem that way sometimes.
I enjoyed The Game-Players of Titan, and I think it's a worthwhile read, but I'm not sure it has enough depth to be comparable to the best of PKD's work. There's an enigmatic, somewhat frustrating open-ended conclusion (unlike Flow My Tears, which, as I've said, seemly like a more fully formed version of this novel) and we don't really get enough explanation of what actually happened. For example, the two factions of Titanians could have been explained a bit better. I also think that Nats Katz and the characters in Pretty Blue Fox could have been sketched out a little more; Joe Schilling, Freya, the McClains and Pete seemed to be the only characters with real depth. All this considered, I still had fun reading this novel. It's quick, it's jarring, and it's darkly humorous; and I think it's certainly worth taking a look at.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

"Someone had once said that you could be terrified in space, but you could not be worried there. It was perfectly true."
"The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be."
"Any man who had ever worked in a hardened missile site would have felt at home in Clavius. Here on the Moon were the same arts and hardware of underground living, and of protection against a hostile environment; but here they had been turned to the purposes of peace. After ten thousand years, Man had at last found something as exciting as war. Unfortunately, not all nations had yet realized that fact."
I've often heard 2001: A Space Odyssey cited as the movie that reinvented what it meant to be a sci-fi movie. Without this landmark film, some have argued, we would not have Star Wars or Blade Runner. Indeed, the jump that one makes when one watches 2001 right after a typical 1950's sci-fi B-movie is immense. The superb sense of mystery, the ground-breaking special effects, the rightly famous score all do their parts to produce a film that was like nothing 1960s movie-goers had ever seen before... and frankly, I could go on and on about how much I like the film. Of course, the film isn't for everyone, but I've long counted myself a fan. Going into my first read of the novel, I had heard the same thing from several sources --the novel rides the film's coattails to a certain degree. Let's be clear: this is certainly true. But I also want to be clear in stressing that this is still a worthwhile read in its own right --even if, and actually especially if, you have seen and enjoyed the film.
The plot of the novel is essentially identical to that of the film. We open on a prehistorical scene: man-apes struggle to survive, a mysterious alien monolith appears out of nowhere, and things start to change. I actually thought that the novel treated this episode slightly better than the film --here we want a bit of explanation as to what is going on, and we actually get a decent amount of it. The monolith seems to be the reason for Man's consciousness. In a move that David Brin seems to have imitated in his Uplift novels, the aliens (through their monolith device) toy with the minds of the man-apes and get them thinking bigger, using tools, et cetera. In essence, they are setting them up on the path to the stars.
The next episode occurs three million years in the future --around the year 2001, or perhaps a bit before. Mankind has set up a few permanent settlements on the Moon, and, we soon find out, just discovered a mysterious monolith buried beneath its surface. No one seems to know its purpose, but everyone seems to agree that this monolith is the product of nonhuman intelligence. Next, we shift to an important ship's quest to the moons of Saturn, seemingly a few months after the revelation on the Moon, where we meet David Bowman, the infamous HAL 9000, and a few other crew members. I won't spoil too much of the main plot of the novel beyond saying that here, I think the movie's mystery perhaps works better than the novel's occasional over-explanation (I'm particularly thinking of Dave's psychedelic journey in this case). Of course, the visual medium might have the intrinsic advantage over the page in displaying such a strange journey, but I can't help but thinking that Clarke could have laid off a bit of the explanation on the final part of Dave's journey...And there's also the distinct possibility that seeing the film first has biased me in this way. To be sure, it's still a fun ride, and we still can't quite call the ending a true "conclusion", just as in the film.
Furthermore, I'd like to note that there was a certain Platonic flavor to the evolution, or biological ascent, that Clarke describes the monolith-makers undergoing. It's surreal and mysterious, yet fascinating to read about --a description I could apply to much of this novel and the film that it is based on. And while we are on the topic of comparison, I found the concluding sections of this novel to be very much in tune with Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, both in theme and content. Clarke was an admirer of Stapledon's, and I think that he did quite well in following in the old master's footsteps here. 2001:A Space Odyssey doesn't quite reach the level of grandeur that Star Maker does, but then again, very few, if any, works of science fiction do.
Overall, I thought that Clarke shined throughout this quick, fun (and often funny), thought-provoking read. He tells us in his Introduction that Stanley Kubrick wanted a "theme of mythic grandeur" for this story, and I think both film and novel fulfill this description with gusto. 2001: A Space Odyssey shows us that there is nothing as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the vastness of space, and also that there is nothing as horrible as being totally alone in it, surrounded by its silence and its emptiness. Yet this story also encourages its exploration, perhaps the only way to conquer these potential horrors, and certainly a cure for some deep and un-extinguishable drive found within the hearts of Men.

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