Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

On the last installment of my quest to read all of Iain M. Banks SFnal output (I will get to the non-M novels one of these days, I promise), I sadly concluded that though there's a lot that I admire about Banks's writing, particularly his flights of invention, his flashes of humor and wit, and the grand achievement that is the Culture, there's always something a little off about his novels.  They've been, at various points, too shapeless, too sprawling, too caught up in the fun of spinning exotic locations and breathtaking set pieces, and, most crucially, too muddled in their handling of their themes, and particularly of the Culture sequence's repeated questioning of the right of an egalitarian, socialist, humanistic utopia to interfere in the business of other civilizations and impose its values upon them.  Along comes The Player of Games, the second Culture novel, which is as perfectly formed and streamlined as other Culture novels have been meandering, whittling away the complications and digressions which have enlivened, but also weighed down, Banks's other novels to reveal a single, linear narrative and a very straightforward story that arrives at its point like an arrow slamming into a bulls-eye.  In terms of craft and construction, The Player of Games is undoubtedly the best Banks novel I've read, and one of the most enjoyable to boot.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture's most accomplished and celebrated player of games, a master of games of skill, strategy, and intellect from dozens of civilizations, and he is bored to death.  In Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel, and in later novels in the sequence, those who oppose it invariably return to the argument that the Culture, an anarchist utopia governed by artificial intelligences, breeds decadence and hedonism in its citizens, makes them soft and vulnerable, and deprives them of a sense of purpose and meaning, and in the early chapters of The Player of Games Gurgeh seems to embody all of these flaws.  He has dedicated his life to the trivial and meaningless, to becoming the very best at artificial competitions with no objective value and no real world purpose, and all it's brought him is unhappiness.  He cuts an unimpressive figure in the novel's first segment, drifting from party to party, and from lover to lover, in a haze of bitterness, envying and undermining the happiness and enthusiasm of those he encounters, desperate for a new challenge.  What soon becomes clear, however, is that in some ways Gurgeh is decidedly unCultured.  He cares about winning.  He wants to be the first to achieve certain victories.  He wants to play for stakes.  In a conversation with a family friend, he muses that one of the games he's mastered was imported from a culture where it was played for wagers of money, where losing a game had real world consequences, often disastrous ones. Did bringing the game to the Culture, where money doesn't exist, Gurgeh asks, diminish it somehow? When a drone he's befriended offers to help him win a perfect game at one of his specialties--an achievement unprecedented within the Culture--Gurgeh is so hungry for the accomplishment that he cheats.

The opportunity to save both his soul and his reputation comes to Gurgeh in the form of a representative of Contact, the Culture's outreach division, who wants him to travel to the empire of Azad and play the game of the same name.  Normally, Gurgeh is told, an imperial system is too inefficient and cumbersome to support a spacefaring civilization, but Azad's empire--ruled by an aristocracy, obsessed with hierarchy, bolstered by codified social, racial, and sexual prejudices, and engaged in the conquest and subjugation of its neighboring species--has survived into this phase of the species's expansion because of the game from which it takes its name, a game that models the empire itself.  All social positions, from the lowliest clerk to the emperor himself, are won by playing Azad, and the philosophy of playing the game successfully is also the philosophy of ruling the empire.  The Culture, having concluded that to attempt to dismantle the empire from without would bring about only loss of life, and cause the survivors to resent their conquerors even more than they did their former oppressors, has chosen a tactic of diplomacy, and dispatches Gurgeh to play in Azad's great games, a months-long tournament in which the emperor himself plays for his throne.

The idea of a game that models reality can't help but resonate with a reader in 2010.  Online multiplayer games like Second Life have sought to mimic the full complexity of reality, while other, more fantastic games derive much of their appeal from allowing players to develop nuanced relationships and alliances.  Writing in 1988, Banks would most likely have been thinking of role-playing games and tabletop games.  In both periods, players of games have had to contend with the accusation that they are investing time, energy, and money in unreal achievements and meaningless victories, and The Player of Games can therefore be read as geek wish-fulfillment: imagine if all your years of playing D&D somehow endowed you with the necessary skills to rule a fantasy kingdom.  There is, in fact, a very familiar fantasy story at the core of The Player of Games, the one about an underdog or an outsider who gains fame and fortune by besting the ruling elite at their own game.  As he would later do in Matter, Banks, by standing outside the fantasy setting and telling its story from a remove, not only changes its genre to science fiction but questions its underlying assumptions--that a game is a good basis for a system of government, that an outsider, however skilled, will be allowed to triumph over the established ruling class, that it is possible change the system by playing by its rules. 

It's interesting to compare The Player of Games to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, another science fiction story which posits a political system that is structured around, and shaped by, a game.  But where Collins imagines that the system and its basic assumptions can be challenged from within the game (I speak here only of the first book, not having read the sequels), Banks tells a more complicated tale.  Unsurprisingly, Azad the empire is more than willing to pervert the purity of the game in order to ensure its own survival--when Gurgeh meets one of a handful of female players, she informs him that she has little chance of making it past the tournament's first round, which is played in groups of ten, as the supposedly randomized system never places more than a single female player in a group, allowing the other players gang up on her; in The Hunger Games, the protagonists' defiance of the game's rules galvanizes the public watching at home, but when Gurgeh advances to the tournament's higher levels, he is informed that, as a condition of being allowed to play, he will have to participate in the falsification of reports that he has lost.  In fact, to call such acts a perversion of the game is to miss the point, because the purpose of Azad is not to shape the empire but to reinforce its status quo, and though outside interference is sometimes necessary in order to achieve this goal, most of the time the game achieves it on its own.  To win at Azad one must think as an Azadian, to value force of arms over diplomacy, conquest over cooperation, possession over sharing.  And, as we discover while following Gurgeh up the tournament's rungs, the more proficient and successful one becomes at Azad, the more appealing these values come to seem.

There is action in The Player of Games--before opting to politely ask Gurgeh to fake a loss, the Azad government tries to eliminate him by making several attempts on his life, and trying to entrap him in a compromising position with two Azad women--and there are the typical Banksian feats of invention, such as the holy planet on which the final games are held, whose single, planet-girding equatorial continent is repeatedly swept by a moving, never-extinguished wall of fire.  But the business of the novel is the game itself, Gurgeh's repeated matches against the increasingly skilled, increasingly desperate opponents the empire throws at him, culminating with a game against the Emperor Nicosar himself.  The novel is essentially constructed like a classic sports movie, with challenges and setbacks offset by triumphs, and it is a tribute to Banks's skill that he manages to make a relatively long sequence of these--Gurgeh plays six games in the tournament, most of which last several days and sometimes take a whole chapter, or several, to describe--seem effortless and engaging.  Like Walter Tevis in The Queen's Gambit (whose final segment, in which the chess genius heroine travels to Russia to beat the Communists at their own game in a politically charged tournament, bears more than a passing resemblance to The Player of Games), he manages to make the exchange of move and counter-move and the formulation and reconsideration of strategies both thrilling and believable, even though, unlike Tevis, the game he's describing is entirely invented.  What's revealed in these descriptions is how much Gurgeh is changed by his encounter with Azad, the empire and the game, how both make him crueler, more ruthless, more eager for victory.  How they foster in him feelings of possessiveness and sadism that should be foreign to a Culture citizen.  This is overdone at points, but as a metaphor for immersion in a foreign culture, and the loss of identity that can accompany it, the game is quite compelling.

If there's one flaw in The Player of Games, it's that Gurgeh doesn't see what any reader will guess, simply from the novel's sports story shape, and what the narrative itself hints at quite heavily--that there is a political reason for his presence in Azad, and that despite their protestations to the contrary, Contact want him to go all the way to the final round and play against Nicosar.  That final game, unsurprisingly, models a war between the Culture and Azad.  It is in playing this game that Gurgeh, who has by that point become at least partially subsumed into Azad culture, for example participating in the cruel sport of Nicosar's court, and is obsessed with winning the tournament, discovers that he has always been playing as the Culture: "He'd habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful."  Playing Azad becomes Gurgeh's way back to the Culture.  Throughout his and Nicosar's match Gurgeh thinks of their game as something intimate and beautiful, but when he speaks about it with Nicosar, the emperor expresses disgust: "you treat this battle-game like some filthy dance.  It is there to be fought and struggled against, and you've attempted to seduce it."  Gurgeh, whose previous attitude to Culture values had been entirely cavalier, is shocked by this glimpse at the naked ambition and lust for conquest that underpin both empire and game into a simple and heartfelt affirmation of the Culture's creed, admitting that though, as Nicosar says, life isn't intrinsically fair, "it's something we can try to make it ... A goal we can aim for,  You can choose to do so, or not.  We have."  The novel's ending reads like a version of War Games in which the game-playing computer not only averts nuclear war by concluding that the only winning option is not to play but also causes the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Instead of starting a war with Azad, the Culture sends Gurgeh to play it, so that it can avoid not only the destruction of Azad but the loss of self that it will incur by becoming a conquering, colonial force.

Of all the Culture novels I've read, none have been so firmly on the Culture's side as The Player of Games.  Other novels have featured sympathetic characters--in Consider Phlebas, the lead and main point of view character--who voice harsh criticism of the Culture, its arrogance in imposing its way of life on others, the near-religious zeal and self-righteousness with which it pursues this goal, its blindness and dismissiveness towards other, not entirely illegitimate, ways of life.  Most other Culture novels involve a certain degree of cold-blooded number crunching on the part of Contact and Special Circumstances, weighing an incalculable loss of life here against an even greater one there, and the chance of some greater good down the line.  This is all a sham, of course--Banks is always on the Culture's side and wants us there as well, but he usually makes us work for that conclusion, and feel a little guilty for reaching it.  Not so in The Player of Games.  Not only is the novel's emotional arc that of a man who loses his identity as part of the Culture, and then finds it where he least expected it, but the novel works very hard to make Azad as cruel and off-putting as possible.  In one sequence, Gurgeh, who is on the verge of losing to his latest opponent and feeling somewhat philosophical about this, is galvanized into playing as he has never played before by a tour of the capital city's slums.  Over some half-dozen pages, he sees indigents dying in the gutters, starving women selling themselves, gangs beating ethnic minorities while a crowd watches impassively, the mad paraded in the streets for the public's amusement, and the poor wasting away in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital.  By the end of the novel there can be no doubt that it is evil, and that the Culture is not only right to try to topple the empire, but justified in its means of achieving this.

Much as I enjoyed The Player of Games, this lack of ambivalence towards the Culture gives me pause.  It reinforces the sense that the reason the novel is so successful and enjoyable is that it aims lower than other Banks novels, and is a great deal simpler.  Part of the fun of the Culture novels is their ambiguity, their cheerful admission that the Culture, in trying its best to do the right thing, may be committing a terrible wrong.  This is not to say that there is no playfulness or subversion of expectation in the novel--on the issue of immersion in a foreign culture, for example, The Player of Games is impressively slippery, simultaneously arguing that it is impossible to embrace one cultural identity without losing another, and that culture imprints too deeply on a person's psyche, expressing itself even when it's supposedly been abandoned.  But it seems almost wrong for a Culture novel not to be ambiguous about the Culture--if nothing else, it seems strange for the second Culture novel to be so cheerfully pro-Culture, especially coming as it does on the heels of the dour, cynical Consider Phlebas.  One needs, I think, some grounding in how the Culture works, from novels like Use of Weapons and Excession, to inject the necessary measure of ambivalence into the novel's flag-waving, and I certainly wouldn't want The Player of Games to be anyone's introduction to the Culture.  It stands to reason that a novel as straightforward as The Player of Games--a straightforwardness that extends to its structure as well as its themes--will be less complex, less subtle, than the ones that ramble and present a problem from many different angles.  Maybe that's the trade-off one makes with Banks, and maybe this is the place to conclude, as I did at the end of my review of Matter, that he will never write a novel that I consider entirely perfect.  Still, The Player of Games leaves me more hopeful about Banks's skill than Matter did, and more eager to seek out more of his novels--if only so I can find in them what's missing here.

13 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

FWIW, I will bet money that you will dislike Excession.

Alexander said...

Interesting review, and glad you liked it. I think there is a bit of ambivalence in Player of Games. On my second reading I was struck with just how creepy the larger Special Circumstances conspiracy here was. Azad was certainly the type of evil that deserved to be ended, but in so doing the Culture manipulated Gurgeh, possibly for his whole life, and set up a state within a state. Reference particularly the casual mention early on the SC wasn't going to let anyone else know about Azad's existence, because then they might want to intervene in an unwise manner. In consequence, while there isn't as direct a credible argument against the Culture, in the process of the book they undermine a lot of the associations with anarchy and transparency. At the end Special Circumstances is set up as the only check on Special Circumstances, and I was left wondering if the strategy they use here was really the best approach. Or if, on some level, they were showing off, trying to collapse a nasty civilization in the most esoteric manner possible, effectively playing a game with an interstellar civilization. Since we don't see into the viewpoint of SC, unlike most other books the justification appears a little murky.

For my take, I found Matter the most unambiguously pro-Culture book, the one least involved in presenting it as other than good. One of the many reasons I consider that Banks' worst book in that series to date, although still better than his non-science fiction over the past five years, which reaches Cory Doctrow levels of political preachiness.

I'd say both Inversions and Look to Windward are rather more ambitious in their take on the Culture than Player of Games, and both at least as well written. State of the Art is much more transparent and much lower in quality, imho.

Kate: Abigail has already read and reviewed Excession, if memory serves. Not a full review but one of the Reading Roundups.

Nix said...

I'm not sure the book is flawed as you suggest. Yes, Gurgeh is very slow to see the obvious: but most of the book has made it clear that he's very much a naïf. His only exposure to foreign cultures has been school classes (long in the past now and barely considered, as witness the drone's frequent need to tell him elementary things true of pretty much all non-Culture societies) and since then he's not done much travelling, not done much socializing, he's been pretty much completely obsessed with games.

In that context, his inability to see what is to us bleeding obvious is more understandable.

(I think the last couple of pages force a reassessment of the book, as well: I did not come away from it thinking that the Culture was a wonderful place to live, more that it was run by right manipulative bastards. That last scene also twists the somewhat OTT slum scene from 'Azad is evil, the Culture is good' into 'oh look, another example of manipulation: I wonder how carefully chosen those examples were?')

(Banks does this sort of last-minute twist ending very well indeed. This book isn't the biggest for that by any means. -- obviously I'm not going to tell you which it *is*, because that would be a huge spoiler.)

(btw, I was introduced to the Culture by _The Player of Games_, and I loved it. Being a fourteen-year-old boy in scholastic hell at the time might have accounted for some of that, though. I *wanted* escapism, and the Culture made for a wonderful escape.)

Matt Hilliard said...

Your comments about Player of Games requiring context from the other books is interesting since (as you probably are aware) it is the book most often put forward as the place to start the Culture series. Perhaps the lack of ambivalence that weakens it relative to the other books is what makes it easier for new readers to digest?

Personally I recommend Use of Weapons to people because it's my favorite and in a disconnected series, why start with a weaker book? I bet a lot of people who might like Player and Weapons bounce off the meandering and utterly bleak Consider Phlebas.

Anonymous said...

Great review! However, I agree with Alexander and Nix that the ambiguity is there, and that it is all the stronger for not being expressed in a mini-lecture by one of the characters. It's the multiple levels of games being played that achieve this - when is a game 'just a game'? After all, the emperor of Azad is right when he claims that Gurgeh is being played.
And the Culture as a whole is very much interested in winning (in the sense of spreading its values), while being in a position to treat its humanitarian interventions as a game at least to the extent that it participates by choice, precisely because it is effectively unbeatable.

Personally I agree that this is one of the best, maybe even the best Banksian SF novel... I would be interested in your thoughts on 'Against a Dark Background' and 'Feersum Enjin'.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kate:

As Alexander says, I wrote about Excession in a recent reading roundup. And no, I didn't love it, though I enjoyed its parts as I usually do with Banks's novels. As you say in the post you link to, the human characters don't really work, and without that centering presence I found the novel a little amorphous.

Alexander:

I take your point about SC's manipulation of both Gurgeh and Azad, but this feels like something that the novel shoves to the background, while foregrounding Azad's perfidy. It's probably also significant that I read The Player of Games after Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, and Excession, so that by this point I take the fact that SC is manipulative, secretive, and its own controlling body for granted, whereas I was expecting, and didn't find, the more overt criticism of the Culture's interventionist agenda that those books contain.

Interesting observation about Matter. I agree that it's not as interested as other Banks novels in questioning the Culture's self-image as a force for good, but that's also not so much the novel's topic, while The Player of Games is very much about the Culture's justification for interference.

Nix:

Is the biggest twist you're hinting at the one in Use of Weapons? Because I guessed that one. I also guessed the twist at the end of The Player of Games - not exactly, but it seemed pretty obvious that the sequence of events that brought Gurgeh to Azad was not as organic as he thought. Which ties into my reply to Alexander above: I took the fact that SC was manipulating Gurgeh for granted, but I expected Banks to go further. It's possible that a reader fresh to the Culture universe - or knowing it only from Consider Phlebas, which views the Culture mostly from the outside - would find these revelations more shocking, and more damaging to the Culture's good guy image, than I did.

Matt:

I didn't know that about The Player of Games, but I'm not surprised. It has attributes that recommend it as a starting point, mostly its relative straightforwardness, and though like you I would start a new reader on Use of Weapons, that might be a little too twisty.

Anon.:

See my replies to Alexander and Nix above. The ambiguity may be there, but it's a lot fainter than in other Culture novels.

I've written briefly about Feersum Endjinn here.

Anonymous said...

I think you might be onto something with the reading order making a difference - I also read the Player of Games first. I thought the novel was all the stronger for leaving the dark side of the Culture somewhat implicit ("show, don't tell" I guess) - this trust in the reader is far too rare in SF.

I disagree that the story of SC's manipulations are shoved into the background, because they structurally frame the novel at the beginning and the end, with Azad happening in between. Mawrhin-Skel's comments on the text might be unneccessary, but they are there. The extent to which SC's purpose and methods tarnish the Culture's "good guy image", or are a necessary price to pay (as is argued by the drone), is left to the reader to decide. This is not a bad thing - as I think it is very hard to argue the reader isn't prodded into thinking about it.

Btw I dimly remember reading somewhere that it was the first SF novel Banks wrote, but he could not find a publisher and in the end Consider Phlebas was published first.

Matt Hilliard said...

Anon: Pretty sure you're remembering an anecdote about Use of Weapons, an earlier and apparently much different draft of which was written in 1974. See "History" in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_Weapons

Nix said...

I didn't notice you'd reviewed UoW already or I wouldn't have been so evasive. :) It was obvious that Gurgeh was being manipulated, yes -- the Mysterious Narrator says as much repeatedly -- and the mechanism was fairly obvious from the moment of the climax, when Flere-Imasho shucks its disguise: it made the last page more confirmation than shock. Perhaps Banks made it a bit too obvious?

(However, all of this was obvious to me only on subsequent reads.)

Gareth Rees said...

This is an excellent review of the book, but I think there are a couple of points that are missing that I think are quite important to an understanding of the novel.

The first is that the character arc of Gurgeh is that of a bildungsroman, a story of moral growth from childhood to adulthood. In the early part of the story, we see Gurgeh behaving in ways that the Culture considers childish or “primitive”—obsessed with winning games, sneeringly dismissive of activities that he doesn’t excel at (like the game of laser tag at the beginning), determined to dominate his colleagues and possess his sexual partners. For a man of this temperament, Azad is an intoxicating experience: “He didn’t feel any personal animosity towards Bermoiya, but he desperately wanted to win this game, and the next game, and the one after that. He hadn’t realised how seductive Azad was when played in its home environment ... Azad itself simply produced an insatiable desire for more victories, more power, more territory, more dominance.”

But after seeing the ruinous consequences of this lust for power and domination, he changes—his moral core aligns with the Culture—and he returns home a different man. This is symbolised by Yay Meristinoux, who at the beginning had rejected his proposition (“I feel you want to ... take me, like a piece, like an area. To be had; to be ... possessed”), having sex with him at the end.

The second point is that the Azadians are a satirical version of us (that is, twentieth-century Earthicans), and the description of their society is an attack on our racism, capitalism, inequality, war-mongering, colonialism, torture, oppression, and so on. Making them aliens with three sexes and a society based around a board game is a way of suckering in the reader into the argument: it’s easy to go along with the judgmentalism of Flere-Imsaho until suddenly the light dawns and you realise that you’ve been judging your own society too.

I think this explains the “lack of ambivalence towards the Culture” that you noted. If you’ve read some of the more recent ‘Culture’ books this then this satirical approach is going to seem muddled because in these later books the Culture itself often stands for us, making a criticism of liberal interventionism and neocolonialism. But Banks started writing The Player of Games way back in 1979 (though the book was not published until 1988), and the function of the Culture was utopian, a straightforwardly good society to act as a lens through which to criticise contemporary human society. This criticism is played completely straight in ‘The State of the Art’ but I think it’s more effective in displaced form as here.

There are lots of subtle hints that the Azadians are meant to stand for us: “despite the Empire’s obvious, if limited, technological sophistication, its formal side remained so entrenched in the past” ... “a people so concerned with rank and protocol and clothed dignity might well want to restrict such things [pornography], harmless though they might be” ... “I have chosen to represent the intermediates—or apices—with whatever pronominal term best indicates their place in their society, relative to the existing sexual power-balance of yours. In other words, the precise translation depends on whether your own civilisation is male or female dominated.”

Anonymous said...

Your post gives away important plot details of "The player of games". It would have been considerate if you had included a spoiler warning at the top. This is the first time I encounter this blog so perhaps there is somewhere a warning that any post may contain spoilers without previous warning *in* the post. But even if there is, there's no guarantee that people will have seen it so if a post is going to have spoilers then it should come with an appropriate warning.

Thankfully I had already read the novel but I would have been mighty annoyed if I hadn't.

baeraad said...

This is the only Culture novel I have read to date, and interestingly enough, my impression of it was that it had the qualities (for better or worse) that you say here that it, unlike other parts of the series, does not have.

On the positive side, I did in fact get a feeling of moral ambiguity about the Culture's interference. What got to me the most was how disinterested it felt - that it wasn't trying to improve the universe because of any staunchly held morals or sincere passions, but rather because its perfection left it nothing else to do and it had to amuse itself somehow. It did feel that the Culture's involvement was ultimately a good thing - in fact, I very much enjoyed how the book took care to show to show that while smug utopian perfection might be problematic, good old-fashioned social injustice is pretty damn problematic too and a whole lot messier to boot; it felt like a good response to the likes of Joss Whedon and their knee-jerk demonising of any attempts to make things better - but not that there were no moral problems with it. Like you said of the other books, it felt like Banks wanted me to like the Culture but also to not feel entirely comfortable about liking it.

On the negative side, I feel some morbid curiosity as to how aimless and meandering the other books must be, if this is the one that does have a plot. It was easy enough to read, but everything in it seemed custom-made to kill off any tension that might exist - the reader was assured, time after time, that there were no stakes whatsoever and that the outcome did not matter one bit. That turned out to be a lie in the end, but I am an obedient sort of reader and when the story tells me not to care, I go right ahead and not care.

I plan on reading "Use of Weapons" soon. I guess we'll see what I think then.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

What got to me the most was how disinterested [the Culture] felt - that it wasn't trying to improve the universe because of any staunchly held morals or sincere passions, but rather because its perfection left it nothing else to do and it had to amuse itself somehow

Yes, that is very much the case, and as you say there is certainly some of this in The Player of Games. It's just that the other Culture novels hit this point so much more strongly that Games comes to seem almost gung-ho in its support of the Culture. By the same token, if you've read a few Culture novels, you also know that just because a Contact drone (or a drone pretending to be from Contact, but who may actually be from Special Circumstances) tells you that there are no stakes to your mission, doesn't mean that that's actually so. That said, I wonder if your experience isn't fairly close to how readers coming to the novel when it was published would have reacted, since it's only the second in the sequence.

I'll be interested to hear what you make of Use of Weapons. It's certainly a novel whose stakes are established from the outset, and though it's not perfect (no Culture novel is) I think it may be one of the sequence's most complete works.

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