Brunner plays a strange game in Players

I think it says something about an author’s skill when you read one of his books, and you find the first 75% of it not to your liking for whatever reason (too boring, too strange, seems like it’s not going anywhere), but by the time you’ve read the last 25% you change your mind completely and end up regarding said book favorably. I’ve just had this experience, with Brunner’s 1980 novel Players At the Game of People. Honestly, for the largest chunk of this very strange book I was skeptical about it’s value, and it seemed very possible it would turn out to be utterly pointless. But by the time I read the last page and closed the cover, I was surprised to find myself nodding in approval, and appreciating the subtle and roundabout way in which the story unfolded.

Godwin Harpinshield is a member of a special group of people who — how to explain this? — live lives of inexplicable luxury, amongst and yet apart from the rest of humanity, and who have access to certain strange powers and experiences, including near-immortality or at least very long life. If that sounds vague, then you get the picture, because it IS vague throughout most of the book. As Godwin visits other members of this group in a surrealistic sequence of bizarre encounters, we get little sidewise glimpses into their existence, and obscure hints at where their unique abilities come from, or at least where they think they come from. Much of this is quite annoying, concerning mystical gibberish about astrology and astral guidance and the like; early on in the book it seems like the whole thing is going to stay on that track, thus my frequent wondering if this was a waste of time. I’m in a delicate position here, since I can’t tell you too much without spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say that the answer, while left intentionally sketchy, is not a straightforwardly mystical one. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be; there are perfectly good SFnal explanations available, which suits my preferences, of couse.

But that doesn’t matter so much — the source of the special powers isn’t really the point. At its heart, this is a Faustian tale about the price of getting everything you ever wanted. Godwin has easy access to all the finest things in life: a fantastic (and fantastical!) home, expensive cars, instant travel to exotic locales, the best food and drink in the world, the company of as many gorgeous women as he likes. And he pays nothing for it. At any rate, he pays no money for these privileges, nor does he work for them. But as the novel progresses, we begin to discover that there is a price, after all. And along with Godwin, we are forced to ponder whether it’s a price worth paying. Although Godwin gives off an almost constant sense of unease and dissatisfaction all along, the story gets most interesting when he finally starts to consciously question the reasons for his unease. The breakthrough moment comes here:

Something to do, perhaps, with pride?
Do I have pride?
He looked about him — looked anywhere in the grand apartment except at her — and asked, for the first time: “Did I create that? Did I earn it? Did I invent it 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?

The novel ends tragically for Godwin, who never reaches any solid conclusions about what he could or should have done differently in life. He finds no answers, but at least he asks some questions — which is, I suppose, what we all do in this Game of People we call “life.”

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