The Player of Games (1988) is the second instalment in Iain M. Banks’ set of books depicting the fabulously super-advanced, anarcho-socialist civilisation that is the Culture. Continuing on the heels of Consider Phlebas, which introduced the Culture to the public from a wholly outside perspective, The Player of Games follows instead an individual from within mainstream Culture society, a rarity in Banks’ Culture works. It’s a finely layered novel and, through its very straightforward yet clever construction, manages to manipulate the reader’s perception of the Culture by providing brief glimpses of events and subtle shifts in focus that are left for the reader to evaluate as they see fit.
Many of Banks’ Culture novels don’t always explicitly feature the Culture. Yet, despite the oblique manner in which the underlying subjects and themes are often tackled, there is never any doubt where the focus actually lies. Unusually, The Player of Games accords the deepest and widest glimpse of average, mainstream Culture life compared to most other instalments, especially during the first section of the novel. These include attitudes on etiquette, sex and gender, social interaction, biological-machine symbiosis, technology and eugenics. Banks’ smooth and understated prose manages to provide a substantial amount of information through implications that speak volumes. Some of this effect is achieved through simple character reactions. Much of it is also provided through clever and casual insertions of words (adjectives and other modifiers) peppered throughout dialogue, or additions of brief sentences, sometimes mere fragments, that add unexpected, tangential dimensions to the context of what is being discussed. The cocktail party scene, an impression of the Culture writ large, is a particularly fine example that simultaneously brings all of the aforementioned elements into play. The writing is unhurried yet flows naturally, often with humorous shades that showcase some of the decadent zest and insouciant attitudes of Culture individuals.
Banks is an author who can only be content when dealing with large themes. Here, a simple exploration of the onset of ennui, that great bane of any society awash with instant wish-fulfilment, leads the protagonist on a journey where he’s compelled to evaluate those beliefs previously accepted as self-evident. This is done by having him confront a wholly unfamiliar frame of reference and, eventually, to perceive aspects of those beliefs from without. While hardly an uncommon theme, it can be a difficult result to achieve convincingly even under normal circumstances. But Banks doubles down. Even this straightforward notion is subverted by virtue of the starting perspective. His protagonist’s beliefs are informed by one of the freest societies conjured up in fiction, and there is also a peculiarly necessary appreciation of nuances of an overly oppressive, cruel society. Where attempts from other authors might seem forced or mishandled, Banks deftly builds to this realisation in stages to truly excellent effect.
How can one escape the severe perils of ennui, that truly loathsome condition that springs from having every desire catered to? This is the main dilemma for master game-player Gurgeh of the Culture. At the pinnacle of his ‘career’, he finds himself dissatisfied with the ease of his life and seeks novel experiences. An opportunity arrives amidst dubious circumstances, where he’s provided with the option to travel to a distant empire and participate in a most complex game. So complex, in fact, that this foreign civilisation is itself structured around the values of the game and even named for it. The empire of Azad is a brutal society with its totalitarian laws, its multitude of taboos, and emphasis on sex, dominance and ownership. The Culture’s polar opposite. As the empire’s main pastime, the game of Azad determines status, doles out positions in government and decrees policies to be enforced. The winner even sits as emperor.
If the metaphor seems heavy-handed, well, it is. Very much so. It’s dangerous ground; if executed poorly, it runs the risk of waxing absurd. Fortunately, Banks utilises the game to adroitly delineate opposing world views very convincingly. It’s never disclosed what the game is. Instead, Banks paints broad strokes and focuses on the psychology of the game-play by bequeathing the reader elements far more significant than simple mechanics. These being a holistic, more intuitive sense of competitive spirit, the various emotional responses to winning and losing with the concomitant risks for both outcomes, and a general architecture of tactics and plans of attack. All of this without fleshing out the rules and structure of the game, which would have inevitably impeded the narrative. In a novel where Banks already manages to engage the reader from the outset, these sections are without doubt some of the most intensely gripping.
Gurgeh himself is a curious character, not precisely fitting in with normal Culture tenets. He displays a primal, more feral quality – a strange proclivity to competitiveness which, whilst being unusually outré for the Culture, places him in a uniquely ‘serendipitous’ position to assimilate and understand the psychology of Azad. Gurgeh plays the game, and plays beyond expectations. And whilst the development of the game into an ideological conflict is both obvious and expected, it’s no less powerful for the knowing. The subtle development of Gurgeh, those glimpses of minute shifts in attitude from one mindset to another, is superbly rendered and key to amplifying the various nuances of the conflict.
Banks also introduces other levels to the games being played. Even Gurgeh’s brief forays in the city are distinctly engineered to get a particular point of view across through a blatant exhibition of atrocities, one example of a further game directed not just at the protagonist but also more consciously to the reader. However, this manipulation by Banks is not all one-sided. Even whilst exulting at the prospect of Culture benevolence vanquishing oppression vicariously through the game of Azad, Banks’ depiction of Culture artifice and expedient Realpolitik leaves one feeling distressingly ambivalent, especially when its imperialistic zeal is so conspicuously brought to the limelight. The “prime directive” is a concept with no currency here, and the narrative is made all the more refreshing for it despite leaving one troubled by the arrogance of such unconcerned encroachment.
This focus on the potential hypocrisies of a smoothly functioning, post-scarcity, anarchist society, as much so as on its immeasurable advantages, is what actually raises Banks’ Culture novels above the chaff and not just because of his stylistic verve, which has yet to peak as of this novel despite many brilliant passages. The Player of Games doesn’t contain the same level of mischievous glee nor the more frenetic, action-oriented fun-factor of later novels like, say, Excession, but it manages to achieve a near perfect balance between Banks’ inclination to focus on murky ethics whilst maintaining a nimble pace with many desirable elements of Culture bravura and humour – one can’t forget the fabulously cheeky ship names, nigh all of them steeped in irony. Best of all, he does this in three hundred pages.
The Player of Games is an excellent, early science fiction novel from one of Britain’s more literary SF authors, one who’s equally at home writing highly-regarded contemporary fiction yet also relishes the prospect of diving headlong into genre conventions with singular delight. It is an ideal, short entry point into the Culture for its uncomplicated, straightforward and focused narrative, especially for those readers who don’t typically indulge in genre fare. It must be kept in mind that this novel emphasises an exploration of ideologies, but it’s done with skill and a deft touch that never allows the exploration to fall into pat homily. Most importantly, the story makes for compelling reading all the way through, even with its rather leisurely, almost bucolic first section. It also proves that space opera need not be restricted to a constant deluge of military-styled explosions* and offers a simple, enjoyable tale which, when its surface is scratched, reveals a bevy of nuance and depth that is typically Banks. Highly recommended.
*Not that explosions are undesirable in space opera by any means.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.