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A Twinkle In His Eye

Players at the Game of People

By John Brunner 

30 Apr, 2024

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John Brunner’s 1980 Players at the Game of People is a stand-alone science fiction/horror novel.

Godwin Harpinshield is blessed to enjoy a life that is exactly what he wants. He has a fancy car, portals leading to idyllic beaches, opportunities for heroism, and the ability to muddle the minds of authority figures who ask too many questions.

Godwin accepts that there is a price for all of this. He does not fully appreciate what that price is.

Godwin’s enviable status is due to his arrangement with certain patrons, in whose true nature Godwin is studiously not interested. They confer on Godwin the jet setter lifestyle he covets. Occasionally, they borrow his body for purposes about which he is uninformed. On such occasions he is lavishly rewarded. Most recently, Godwin got to live out his dream of World War II heroism, despite the considerable handicap of living in strife-torn 1980s Britain.

While Godwin enjoys his moments of heroism, his motivation for rescuing Gorse, a boarding school student turned teenage prostitute, from a terrible fate has very little to do with altruism. His patrons are always open to new recruits. Miserable Gorse seems a likely candidate.

The confused teen is taken on a bewildering tour of Godwin’s world. Despite Godwin’s frankly terrible pitch1, Gorse believes that her current life is a disaster and will always be disaster. Godwin’s patrons could offer her so much more. She signs on.

Gorse’s mother Barbara comes looking for her missing daughter. The sensible thing for Godwin to do would be to use his mental powers to make Barbara stop asking questions. Godwin does not do this, in part because he recognizes Barbara as the little girl he rescued in 1944. His failure to deal properly with Barbara now is a fatal mistake.

Much of what Godwin believes about his life is clearly false. Until Barbara appeared, he studiously avoided inconvenient questions. Now he is forced to confront the contradictions. Too bad for Godwin, because that means his final bill is now due.


This book had more tongue-kissing by precocious ten-years-olds than I liked, although at least all of the adults involved are astonished and alarmed at this. Most of the sex in this novel appears to be intended as disturbing, but the tongue-kissing could have been omitted. Or at least not mentioned as often.

The problem with this novel isn’t with concept but execution. Specifically, sleepwalker Godwin’s increasingly alarmed awareness of his situation could have been a zinger of a short story or perhaps novella2. Stretched out to novel length, the plot is slow, bordering on interminable. When I took this book off my bookshelf, I had no idea what it was about (though I did have some fleeting memory that it was somehow connected with Poul Anderson’s The Devil’s Game3). That is because Players isn’t memorable4.

Readers may remember I also found Brunner’s 1980 The Infinitive of Go disappointing. My suspicion then and now is that the culprit is Brunner’s work on his failed historical novel The Great Steamboat Race (published in 1983). He spent five years writing that book. He still needed to make a living, so he dashed off novels like this one (and Go) in the time he could spare from Steamboat.

Was Steamboat worth the effort and the cost? Readers will have to wait until June to find out.

Players at the Game of People is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo).

I did not find Players at either Chapters-Indigo or Words Worth Books, presumably because it is now available only as an ebook.

1: Godwin relies on shouting-and-contemptuous-lecturing to convince Gorse. Not good marketing. Perhaps his donor-given ability to mentally dominate authorities doesn’t work here.

2: I don’t understand why the category of novelette exists.

3: Poul Anderson’s The Devil’s Game was also published in 1980, a month after the Brunner came out. Forty-four years on, I remembered the books as being somehow associated. Was it just having read them close together? Was it the word game’ in the title? I should read the Anderson to find out.

I think this will be the next book in my Because My Tears Are Delicious To You review series.

4: Maybe the problem was choice of protagonist. Would the plot have worked better told from Gorse or Barbara’s point of view?