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.