Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks
Orbit (Reprint Edition), 2008
416 pages / $15.99 Buy from Amazon
Iain M. Banks passed away on June 9th of this year from terminal cancer to the gallbladder. He had a prolific career with 27 books and came to fame with his first book, The Wasp Factory. I’ve been reading his Culture series after multiple friends urged me to read his work, declaring Banks was the best science fiction writer they’d read. The Player of Games is the second book in the Culture series and probably my favorite in the series so far, mainly because it revolves around gaming. I did a book review of the first one, Consider Phlebas, for HTMLGiant here, and while this review complements that first part, it also serves as a tribute to Banks with quotes from some of his interviews before his recent passing.
At the center of this massive, sprawling universe is the Culture. The Culture is an egalitarian form of government based in a post-scarcity world which means that everything is free because of an abundance of resources. This allows people to pursue what they want to without worry of making enough money to survive. The way the Culture maintains everything is by putting computer AIs, or Minds, in charge of the government. As anyone who has seen Star Trek can testify, even in a post-scarcity world, people can be corrupt and pursue agendas that are counter-intuitive, motivated by greed and vanity. Since the Culture is made up of robots who find such notions puerile, they do a good job maintaining the status quo. There are also no such things as laws per se. Everyone has everything they need so many of the motives for crime have vanished.
Player of Games was first published in 1988, though it was reworked from an earlier version Banks started in 1979. It exemplifies the best of the Culture books with beautiful writing, exotic locations, and thrilling plots full of intrigue. Ironically, things start slowly in an idyllic world where people can play games all day and tedium is the biggest malaise they suffer from. Gurgeh is a master of games who is bored with life because he is too good at them. While he might lose a game or two (there are even some games he is not good at), Gurgeh has a sense for gameplay that helps him to master almost anything. “I… exult when I win. It’s better than love, it’s better than sex or any glanding; it’s the only instant when I feel… real.” Only, most of the games no longer cause that sensation as no one can offer him a true challenge.
Partly motivated by his boredom and further pushed into it through a blackmail scheme perpetrated by a Culture drone, he is sent by Contact (the special forces division of the Culture) to infiltrate the Empire of Azad. His mission, outwardly, seems simple. Learn the game of Azad and play it to the best of his abilities. What exactly is the game? “The game of Azad permeated every level of society, like a single steady theme nearly buried in a cacophony of noise, and Gurgeh started to see what the drone Worthil had meant when it said Contact suspected it was the game that held the Empire together.” Official positions are awarded by rankings in the game and the winner becomes Emperor. “The idea, you see, is that Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life (italics are mine); the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.”
Gurgeh starts the game badly, even worse than people had expected, caught up in minutia about the game he can’t grasp. That’s when he changes tactics and focuses on the psychology of his foes and realizes that the rest were “too concerned with winning the game quickly… the moves could become a language, and Gurgeh thought he could speak that language now, well enough to lie in it.” Banks takes the readers away from the specifics of the game and concentrates on how the different personalities play in different ways to reflect who they are. The broader strokes makes for a far more interesting read as it becomes a strategic war of wills between individuals.
Satire runs throughout the story, adding an element of humor to offset the grimmer aspects. This is accented in the contrasts between the Culture and the Empire when it comes to their views on social rituals and wealth stratification. Gurgeh can’t comprehend the Empire’s obsession with status or honorifics because none exist in the Culture (in an amusing exchange, he, a human, has to get pointers about human behavior from the drone, a machine). Part of Gurgeh’s growth is understanding this alien culture, cultural idiosyncrasies included. This also highlights a characteristic of the Culture which is their curiosity and their interest in learning the rituals of a different society, no matter how foreign they may seem. This in part explains why the Culture, technologically superior to the Empire, doesn’t just forcibly subjugate them.
Banks shows all aspects of life in the Empire including its seamy underbelly. An eerily strange alien sex show involving a guy who breathes through his penis and two ladies who try to get his scar-portrait and set him up in a sex scandal add to the bizarre milieu. Gurgeh continues to win his bouts with the best players in the Empire and even comes to admire them for their quaintly ritualistic ways. As though Banks wanted to dispel that notion, Gurgeh’s companion drone, Flere-Imsaho, takes him on a tour of the town at night. To Gurgeh’s shock, violence is rampant, sexual abuse is unchecked, and outside the affluent facade tailored to impress him as a member of the Culture, there is only misery and desolation. The sight outrages him and his resulting fury causes him to completely destroy his enemy in the next round. Again, it’s not so much the game of Azad that is important so much as the mindset of the players. At the same time, this is an important part of Gurgeh’s character arc as he transforms from someone playing the game for personal amusement to someone who has an actual interest in defeating the Empire for a cause bigger than himself.
To provide a backdrop for the political machinations, Banks creates some fantastic landscapes. Echronedal, the planet where the final round of the game is played, is no exception. “Halfway there the Imperial Fleet left the region of dust that lay between Ea’s system and the direction of the main galaxy, and so that vast armed spiral was spread over half the sky like a million jewels caught in a whirlpool… What was unique… was to discover a wave of fire forever moving round the planet on the continental landmass… The whole land-based ecosystem had evolved around this never-ending conflagration.”
Gurgeh surpasses expectations and reaches the championship. It turns out the Culture has a deeper political agenda than anyone had imagined; taking over the Empire by beating them at their own game. When Gurgeh faces off against the best player of Azad, the Emperor Nicosar, he discovers the way “he’d always played was… 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…” Nicosar had “gone the other way, and made the board his Empire, complete and exact in every structural detail to the limits of definition the game’s scale imposed…” Player of Games, then, is not so much about gaming as it is two different ideologies of life clashing against one another, emblemized by the different playing styles.
Iain M. Banks was an incredible writer who wrote rich, diverse worlds that never shied away from the darker aspects of life, all the while weaving an entertaining yarn. He imagined a universe where utopianism went hand-in-hand with some of the harsher realities of existence and created an ideal that he put to the test with every new iteration in the Culture series. As Banks said in his final interview with the Guardian: “Well if you are going to write what a friend of a friend once called ‘Made up space shit’, then if it’s going to have any ring of truth that means sometimes some of the horrible characters get to live, and for there to be any sense of jeopardy, especially in future novels, the good people have to die. Sometimes.”
He began writing Quarry before he knew he had gotten terminal cancer even though the book is about a man who learns he has cancer and has to come to terms with that fact. “As a writer – it must be the same for actors – you’re used to dealing with the idea of death and all the big questions. Unless you’re writing purely for five-year-olds, about bunnies, you’re going to have to think about death. Your characters will die and people will live on afterwards who cared about them. You need to be able to empathize with them.”
All too true. Rest in Peace Iain M. Banks.