“A Game of Unchance” was originally published in Amazing in July 1964. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 157–174.
On Mars, Bob Turk watches as a carny ship arrives, promising “Freaks, Magic, Terrifying Stunts, and Women.” Turk goes to alter the settlement council. Last time they came the carnies robbed the settlement of much of their crop, yet he still felt a deep need to be entertained. Life on the frontier world was too dull. Turk discusses with Vince Guest their plan to use Fred, a “talented” but “half-witted” boy to win at the games. He walks on to see Hoagland Rae, the settlement council chairman, who also runs the profitable store providing tools to the Martian shepherds.
Turk tells Hoagland Rae about the carny ship. Hoagland is worried that they probably have an anti-Psi in their company, but the community is committed to trying.
For practice and to show his father that he can do it, Fred Costner moves a rock. His father reminds him to find the game with the most valuable prize. At the carnival, Fred notices that one booth was being protected with Psi abilities. The booth is a dunk tank. The target is a no-head mutant. The prizes seem to be basic toys, but Fred is sure that these are the valuable prizes and tries the game.
Hoagland is reviewing one of the figurines that Fred won at the dunk tank. It is one of several they won during the carnival. Fred had a successful night winning prizes. He is trying to imagine its worth. It does not respond to voice commands. Before finishing his investigation he learns that the dolls have starting attacking the community. The figurines—revealed to be microrobs—suddenly disappeared.
Later, Fred’s father Tony is working in the field and kills a Martian-gopher. On closer inspection he sees that the gopher was being controlled by a mechanical device. Hoagland studies this harness to confirm that it was being controlled from a source about a half mile away. Tony starts to wish he was back on Terra. Hoagland contacts the UN military.
The UN military suggest that Terra was the target of these devices and their winning the game did disrupt the carnival’s plan. They will coat the area in arsenic gas, killing the livestock and making the area uninhabitable for the colonists. The settlement will become a front in the war between the UN and the Falling star Entertainment Enterprises.
Fred is wondering if he could save the settlement by finding and defeating the microrobs. He later follows one that ran across his foot to a ship that they are using to leave Mars. He meets a woman, who does not seem to have psi-abilities. She knows Fred as the one who won all the prizes. Fred tells her that the carnival’s p-k was not very good, which she interprets as a request to join the carnival. She explains that they had wired rats in Hoagland’s office and knew right away they called the UN. The microrobs would not have attacked had Hoagland not tampered with one of them. Instead of collecting the sixteen the settlement won, they are releasing the rest on the Martian surface.
A General Wolff arrives to take over leadership at the settlement. He explains that his has happened to other communities. They carnival arrives, loses a fake psi-battle and leaves microbots behind. He is not willing to explain the entire plan, but it is a massive alien invasion, so significant that Mars will likely need to be abandoned, but they are trying to disrupt their circuits.
Sometime later Bob Turk is examining his field, contaminated by the nightly activities of the microrobs. Many families have already left for Terra. He sees another ship, carrying another carnival company arriving. Vince and Turk talk about the carnival, but are titillated by the women, sights, and smells of the carnival. Bob goes to take a closer look while Vince meets with Hoagland.
Tony argues that this carnival company is probably good. There is no reason to believe it has the same nefarious intentions as the other one did. Visiting the carnival Fred scouts the booths and Hoagland asks if there are any prizes that they may win. Fred locates on booth selling homeostatic traps that can catch the microrobs. Fred is sure that he can win those prizes, even if it means they will have to give up most of what the settlement still has.
“A Game of Unchance” is yet another example of Dick’s criticism of the endless cycle of consumption. What we seem to have on the surface is an alien force, invading a planet using consumer goods. Dick wrote on this before in both “The Little Movement” and “War Game.” In several other stories Dick warned against the malevolent character of blind consumerism. This story also fits nicely alongside the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in its portrayal of the tedious banality of life on the Martian frontier. One reason the carnival is so easily able to trap the people of the Martian settlement is that their life is so horribly boring. Anything out of the ordinary awakens their life just a bit. It is not just that they hope they can find something they need in the prizes offered by the carnival. They are also attracted to the freaks, the food, and most importantly the women. Mars seems to be a place where sexual desire between spouses reaches their ultimate end.
Now, while the military rightfully sees these off-world carnivals are a military threat, they do not understand the entire scheme. They see only that the carnival leaves behind small robots that kill livestock, poison the soil, and otherwise make agricultural life impossible. They do not realize that this carnival is apparently followed by another one (maybe the same company under a different banner), selling traps. They are not really invaders. They are just manufacturing needs, for the big payout later. Manufactured needs is something that people living in the late capitalist world do not need a detailed lesson in.
Dick’s mutants are continuing their path toward becoming less and less heroic. As with “Captive Market” we find people with amazing abilities using their talents to cheat at carnival games. For people raised on superheroes it is hard to understand, but I find Dick’s interpretation of posthuman mutants using their abilities to make a quick buck the most believable. We live in a world where an incredible amount of talent is being used to enrich corporations, devastate the environment, and degrade the worth of human beings. What reason is there to believe mutants would do more with their abilities.