ROBERT SHECKLEY – The Game of X: A Novel of Upsmanship Espionage. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1965. Dell #2788, paperback, 1966; Ace, paperback, 1980 (?). Film: Condorman, 1981.

CONDORMAN. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1981. Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera. Loosely based on the novel The Game of X, by Robert Sheckley. Directed by Charles Jarrett.

   William Nye (yes, Bill Nye) is a likable, if not overly bright sort hanging on in Europe by the skin of his teeth, and reluctant to go home, so when a friend who works for an obscure agency that lends the CIA a hand once in a while offers Nye a simple job, to entrap a spy so they can turn him, a modest and nonthreatening spy, Nye accepts the job, and finds shutting the spy in question up is far harder than entrapping him.

   But things soon get out of hand when Nye’s new boss, Colonel Baker, takes note of a certain phenomena once the debriefs the spy Nye helped entrap.

   …other possibilities glimmered like marsh fire: a shadow agent can undertake much more dangerous assignments than his fleshy counterparts. A specter is not susceptible to capture by normal methods.

   Yes, there was work for Agent X — as Baker had already begun to think of him. Agent X utilized that law of human nature which makes con men the easiest victims of a con game. The law of autopredation, Baker decided to call it; the iron rule by which an inevitably merciful Nature turns the specialized strength of the predator into a fatal weakness, and thus betrays a vested interest in long-range averages.

   Nye assumes he is done and goes back to trying to make a living doing things like illegally bartending, when he suddenly finds himself drawn back in. Karinovsky, the spy he unwittingly turned, wants to come in from the cold, and naturally he wants the brilliant Agent X to do the job. All Nye has to do is what he is told, pretend again to be the ruthless Agent X, and all will be well.

   Of course the Russians aren’t going to just let Karinovsky go, but for the most part they are a fairly useless group, for the most part …

   â€œForster is head of Soviet Intelligence Operations, Northeast Italian sector. He’s a formidable fellow, a big, powerful chap, skilled with small arms and quite ingenious at planning. Definitely a man on his way up. But I suspect that he’s overconfident.”

   â€œHow am I supposed to handle him?”

   The Colonel thought about that for a while. At last he said, “I think the best plan would be to avoid him entirely.”

   And anyone who has ever read a thriller can imagine how that is going to go. Nye has hardly set foot in Venice where the game is set to be played before he has been picked up by Foster, who is impressed to be face to face with the famous Agent X.

   â€œI wonder, Nye, if you are as good as your dossier indicates. In all frankness, you don’t look particularly dangerous. A casual observer would judge you barely competent. And yet, your record in the Far East speaks for itself. Specialist in guerrilla warfare. Expert in small arms and explosives. Skilled saboteur and arsonist. Licensed to fly fighter aircraft. A former hydroplane operator and master diver. … Have I left anything out?”

   â€œYou forgot my medals in lacrosse and jai alai,” I said. Inwardly I was cursing Colonel Baker’s overreaching imagination. He had poured too much gilt on the lily; in striving to create a paragon, he had only succeeded in producing a paradox.

   Not long after Nye finds himself kidnapped (again) by one Dr. Jansen (… a dwarf, about two and a half feet high, with a large, finely shaped head and blue pop eyes behind heavy glasses. He wore a dark business suit with a rubber apron over it. He also wore a beard. He looked like a tiny Paul Muni playing a miniature Pasteur.) who plans to torture him for details of Karinovsky’s defection, but Nye blunders his way to safety — or was it a brilliant move by Agent X? No matter what Nye does he seems to be feeding the legend of Agent X.

   The Game of X, subtitled “A Novel of Upsmanship Espioinage” is from the pen of satirical science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, whose work graced many of the best magazines and collections in the fifties and sixties, and who tried a more serious hand at thrillers with his Stephen Dain novels and his mix of science fiction and thriller the “Victim” series that began with his short story “The Seventh Victim” (Galaxy SF, 1953) that came to the screen as The Tenth Victim, about a society where in order to deal with over population and boredom people take art in a game of hunter and hunted elaborately assassinating each other for profit and televised entertainment.

   As you might expect with that pedigree the book is a very funny send up of spies and spying and the whole James Bond milieu, with Nye blundering from one success to another until at the end Colonel Baker is no longer sure whether he made Agent X up or if Nye was X all along, and as Nye asks himself, “Why, after all, did I have to live with reality? Wasn’t illusion a perfectly suitable condition?”

   Game of X came to the screen as a rather handsome and fairly faithful Disney film called Condorman with future Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford as a comic book artist who finds himself recruited to play his creation, Condorman. Oliver Reed was well cast as the redoubtable Foster. Some of the fun of the book is lost in silliness and camp, but then there is a fair amount of silliness in the book to begin with. A sharper, more Sheckley-like edge would have helped no end.

   The Game of X fits nicely on the shelf with some of the better spy spoofs of the era, John Gardner’s The Liquidator, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and books such as Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day and Victor Canning’s The Great Affair. William Nye may not be the brightest bulb, but he proves an affable companion for a jaunty adventure in the sometimes blackly humorous world of unlikely spies.