Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, March 14, 2014

1980: Players at the Game of People (Brunner, John)

Attack on sybarites and/or whimsical dalliance? (3/5)

In my quest to be a Brunner completist (now at twenty-five novels), I’ve had to tackle some of Brunner’s lesser known work in the 1980s. This work occurs after a five-year hiatus of novel writing between Shockwave Rider (1975) and The Infinitive of Go (1980). Are these works lesser known due to an eclipsing presence in the SF community or lesser known because of deteriorating quality? Therein lays my mission as a Brunner completist. This is my fourth foray into Brunner’s later work, another addition to his mediocrity pile.

Rear cover synopsis:
“War hero, jet-setter, gourmet—Godwin Harpinshield was all of these and more; his life was a game played among the Beautiful People whose fame, wealth and power set them above the law, and beyond the laws of nature. Because of a simple bargain that all the Beautiful People made, Godwin’s every desire was his for the asking. Seduced by luxury, Godwin never doubted his fortune, never wondered about his mysterious patrons.

Then the game turned ugly.

Suddenly, the ante was raised and the game was real. The stakes were his future, his sanity and, possibly, his very soul. All Godwin Harpinshield had to discover was: What were the rules of the game? And who—or what—were the other players?”


Godwin works for an unseen employer, an employer who manipulates his reality as his reward. His latest task was to recruit a young woman, Gorse, from her life of prostitution and eventual destitution. To impress her, he lavishes her with fine drink, fine clothing, and an epic evening of sex but he pities her naïve youthfulness and mortal concerns; treating her finely yet with detachment, she’s led into the same mixed reality/fantasy world in which he lives, yet he’ll more than likely never see her again.

The rewards for such occasional tasks come in the form of a lavish yet closely guarded lifestyle: he drives a Lamborghini but parks in a public garage, he lives in a mansion accessed through a slum, he uses passports only once or twice, he rejuvenates and detoxes himself as needed; this secretive lifestyle also allows him to pop in and out of his friend’s bungalow in Bali or a restaurant in Hawaii.

[H]e had had ample time to think and reflect and study. He had no need to earn a living; he was occasionally obliged to invent a new ambition, but that happened seldom, and one conceived, a single ambition often lasted him for several years. (189)

One last reward is his ability to occasionally live out an impossible otherwise fantasy such as earning a George Medal for heroic efforts during World World II. The physical reward and relevant newspaper clipping is proof for his pride, but the emotional/sexual reward from a 10-year-old’s seductive kiss is more satisfactory, a lingering memory in his mind and on his lips. For successfully recruiting Grose, he is allowed another reward, a fantasy of his very wish but, prior to entering the trace-like state, he decides not chose any one scenario, a choice which sends him on a torturous sequence of punishment, imprisonment, and sadism. He awakes from his trance stupefied and uncertain, reflecting, “perhaps it had taken place at some kind of skew-wiff angle between the main line of reality and the diffuse world of simple fantasy” (119).

The unpleasant affair jilts Godwin’s waking life, a life which should be filled with riches and luxury yet has been infiltrated with the memory of pain. Then… he meets an impossible image from his WWII fantasy—the likeness of the same girl who kissed him is now following him, suspecting him of something with the police at her side. Rather than lead a life of suspicion, Godwin plies another of his special traits: the flex, an ability to manipulate people’s minds. Wiping the memory of his suspicion from the cops’ memory, Godwin leaves the blonde-haired woman untouched, yet later confronts her about his own disbelief of her existence. Shattered by the revelation, Godwin gawps at Barbara, “a handsome woman, a woman who had had the persistence—the guts, the bloody-mindedness—to struggle through a miserable life and somehow, nonetheless, create an identity, derived from nobody but herself and her own dreams” (186).

Gobsmacked perhaps by her simple human ability to rise from nothing to become a something, Godwin looks inwardly at himself and what he has achieved:

“Did I create that? Did I earn that? Did I invent or conceive it or design it?”

And felt the chilling knowledge overtake him:

Of course not. I simply accepted it when it was given.

Who have I been all these years? And, worse yet: What have I been?  (190)

His subjective reality shattered and his fantasies flattening, Godwin must look through his past to the time when he accepted his mixed fate, a deal which threatens his life and the life of another close to him and close to Barbara; it seems their fates are sealed.


The above quote from page 190 summarizes one of the overarching themes of the book. One possible theme for this novel could be a shot at rich sybarites who bide their time dabbling in dalliances: women, cars, parties, restaurants and fantasy. These sybarites spend time and spend money but actually create nothing for themselves, much like Godwin doesn’t create his fantasies or even his fate. The novel looks at his coming to realize that his luxurious lifestyle is tainted with a underlying evil.

I’m torn between liking this novel and disliking it, so I’m stuck in the middle. The idea that there are people living on the fringe of our reality who experience their every last desire is enticing, but there are portions of the book which focus too heavily on describing the blurred line between Godwin’s fantasies and realities. The dialogue is a tiresomely echo of outlandish ideas proposed by the characters with very little actual fact-finding. The reader isn’t grounded to many of the concepts which Brunner has written into the plot. I guess you could say that the reader discovers the mysteries of Godwin’s abilities as Godwin himself discovers the inaccuracies and fallacies of his “work”.

However, I do enjoy the discovery; my own infantile conceptions of the newly introduced ideas slowly solidify, an general idea of the direction of Brunner’s young plot. There’s not too much spelled out for the reader—this where a lot of science fiction gets tedious, bogged down with data, stats and facts. Brunner keeps the reader engaged, but the dialogue of discovery—the ping pong postulations—has very little return and cements nothing. The conclusion doesn’t offer any solid evidence of who Godwin “works” for; their identity is vague, the reader’s suspicions carrying its own weight through the conclusion. This is where, at the end, I felt everything was perhaps too vague.

Brunner isn’t often a poetic writer, aside from his obvious wealth of poetry, which has been collected in books such as The Book of John Brunner (1976) and A Hastily Thrown Together Bit of Zork (1974). But many of his novels are written straight-forwardly, attention invested in the originality of the plot (or sometimes on the dollar return from an easy sell) or probing a subject to a great degree (or stumbling over himself in the process). Brunner is also an author who indulges in a few pet topics: spies, hypnotism and telepathy; in this regard, he can be an indulgent author but only to the point of favoring pet topics… he isn’t one to drop cutesy references, go off on a political tangent or fixate on sex.

Saying that, Players at the Games of People feels like an oddly indulgent novel by Brunner, a novel in which he flows poetically at times but also fixates on a specific type of sexual relations (mainly, direct clitoral stimulation); compare: “[H]e fretted ceaselessly as though he were an oyster doubtful about the advantages of being parent to a pearl” (144) and ”He recalled her capacity for orgasm. It has been impressive” (135).

One last oddity, merely a curiosity, about Players at the Games of People is its format. The 219-page novel is divided into 39 unnumbered chapters, nineteen of those pages blank due to pagination (the separation between the end of a chapter and the next so that each chapter begins on the same side—all on odd pages of all of even pages). This results in a choppy read as the chapters are rarely continuous. Aside from Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972), all my other Brunner novels have numbered chapters.


Players at the Games of People is a Brunner curiosity. I don’t see it having much importance in his bibliography, but it does offer the Brunner fan a chance to follow his lead, look into his mind, and chase his indulgences. Interesting… but not essential to anyone other than the Brunner completist, like myself.

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