The Player of Games

Discussion in 'Iain M. Banks' started by Boreas, Sep 23, 2015.

  1. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I've been rereading this second Culture novel and have now finished the first of four sections, "Culture Plate".

    One thing I really love about this work is the slow, very slightly indulgent pace of the first section, where Banks quite adroitly (and without info dumps) gives the reader a rather thorough glimpse of various facets of mainstream Culture life, standards and perceptions.

    It doesn't 'seem' as if the writing is anything special, but it's actually quite subtle and skilled, and injected with a bit more humour (at least, a little more frequently) than with the previous novel, Consider Phlebas. There is quite a bit of information given away through individual reactions, a feature I really admire. Sometimes, an adjective or an entire sentence is casually thrown in that carries a fair bit of weight. And I haven't even gotten to the really good parts of the novel, yet, though I'm quickly approaching it.

    I'd always felt Gurgeh to be someone that I didn't particularly like, but someone who's development I truly appreciated. However, this time around, I'm actually liking (certain aspects), understanding and empathising with Gurgeh much more from the very beginning.

    Who's read this novel (or reading it now) and loved/hated it? Although, I would find it difficult to imagine someone disliking this particular book - I can understand some people having a difficult time with Consider Phlebas, but this one is just too straightforward and imminently readable.
     
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  2. TomTB

    TomTB Administrator Staff Member

    OK, I've not read the post above for fear of spoilers, but I'm about a fifth into this now, and what a contrast to Consider Phlebas!

    This is having much more of a slower build up, and is largely focused on a single character. The setting isn't a war filled universe either, it's a hedonistic Culture setting full of indulgence and excess.

    And I just laughed at one of the culture ship names - Just Read The Instructions.

    Good stuff so far, but looking forward to the pace hopefully picking up.
     
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  3. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    No spoilers in that first post! Glad you're enjoying it. I think it's a stronger novel than CP. The Player of Games is both more simple and also more subtle, especially with respect to Gurgeh's development. It actually makes him feel like a real life character to me. And I love the first, slow section depicting the quotidian interactions and conversations of regular Culture life. I find it to be a very important part of the narrative. Have you seen Cimino's The Deer Hunter? I've always felt the two long, 'domestic' sections beginning each of these stories to be similar and key for the rest of the narrative, not necessarily in terms of plot later on but for the contrast in perspective, attitudes and tone.
     
  4. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    The Player of Games has been an engrossing and delicious read.
    I realize now I should have begun my Culture reading experience with this book and not with Use Of Weapons. Having Banks presenting the different aspects of the Culture intricacies has given me a much better grasping of this society and its citizens.

    Banks’ tale-telling skills are elegant, smooth, sexy, poetic and bloody funny. The Player of Games reads with a beautiful and engrossing simplicity, which never stopped amazing me when reflecting upon it: How difficult it is to convey this story, in a deceptively simple way, with so many complexities regarding its structure, story arcs, and characterisation. How few authors can pull this off.

    Banks' characterisation, plot, sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and rhythm are admirable. He manages to bring home a far remote utopia, decadent, bored Culture, mingled with Minds, drones, alien races et al. It is intelligently casual, exotically familiar and conceptually challenging. The reader can deepen and explore the social differences presented or stay in shallow waters. The fun is guaranteed either way.

    I think my next Culture book will be Consider Phlebas.
     
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  5. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    It's such a good, succinct novel! But even within that narrative simplicity of form, there are these thin, subtle layers available for the peeling. I've been increasingly fascinated by Gurgeh the more times I've read TPoG. At first, I thought there wasn't much to him, but now I find him to be one of Banks' more complex creations, but it's sort of a hidden complexity, indirectly shown. And that first section on the orbital with depictions of almost 'provincial' Culture life is fantastic! It's actually very close to being a realist novel if you remove the SF tropes and signifiers. That scene where Gurgeh watches over his lover's dreaming/breathing is one of those brilliant, light touches that makes Gurgeh a full-fleshed character, a little inscrutable, yet simultaneously familiar.
     
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  6. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I found Gurgeh fascinating from the beginning and, in particular, as he awakes as the story progresses. It feels almost like the unchallenging lifestyle in the Culture leaves everyone practically in a constant supine position, half dormant and running at a half engine.
    You would need an impertinent, wicked drone such as Flere Imsaho to shake you out.
     
  7. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Precisely this! One can, surprisingly, relate to the characters.
     
  8. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Yeah, I think this book is generally the easiest place to start with the Culture. Although, I've come across many people who've started with UoW or Excession (two with more convoluted plots) and absolutely loved it. If you're a classicist, I suspect starting with UoW could be a good idea. I'd recommend UoW to anyone who likes Dostoyevsky, or for more contemporary writers, someone who likes Joseph Heller, for example. I started with Consider Phlebas and read them in order of publication. CP was a great read, but TPoG is when I realised I was going to read every Culture novel.
    I think what I meant to say was that, initially, I didn't find him very sympathetic, even though I did find him interesting and enjoyed his development. But now, I find him very sympathetic.

    Any parts of TPoG that were your favourites?

    Here's the review from the blog.
     
  9. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Banks, as any other worth considering author, has a special flavor in his narrative, and with his Culture books, there is definitely an underpinning background music, which one can easily miss if not well tuned into it.
    I thought UoW was an amazing read although a demanding one. If I had had the background to Banks’ writing style and Culture concept, I could have firstly enjoyed even more the humor and social aspects of it; and secondly, I could have focused more on the complexity of its structure in a more relaxing and enjoyable manner.
    I will definitely read UoW again, and I have the certainty I will appreciate it, even more, this second time round.

    Great review!

    I liked Gurgeh because he felt different to me. Within the apathy that seems to spread amongst the Culture citizens, he was reluctant to give in all the way.
    For example, when Yay mentions he is weird because he has never changed sex nor slept with another man. I don’t think Gurgeh avoided these based on moral principles at all. He was rooted, in my opinion, to preserve an original concept, an imprint of himself. He was even reluctant to pump himself with the glands induced drugs.

    I really enjoyed the first part, which let me learn about the Culture, how people behaved, the ethical paths they followed. I didn’t have this in UoW.
    Then, as soon as he starts mingling with the alien culture, I found it really interesting how Gurgeh began a mild but constant disconnection from the Culture. How he even preferred to speak Eäic to Marian. His attraction for some aspects of the Azda Culture was worrisome to the point Flehe I. took him sightseeing to bring him back to the Culture mindset
    Flehe Imsaho/Mawhrin Skel were a fantastically creative and hilarious addition, which definitely brought familiarity to the story.
    I love the personalities of those drones! I find the names so ingenious! I wish I had read and thought about Mawhrin Skel name when I joined the forum…!
     
  10. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I can change it if you really want!
     
  11. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Toll! In that case, as I get to choose, I would go for the name Diziet Sma: A special circumstances agent...;)
     
  12. fl1pper

    fl1pper New Member

    I've enjoyed all of the Culture series books, but this one is my favorite. It's been a long time since I read it but I remember that it what I liked the most about it was the Azad empire using the game to determine their political structure. Thought that was a really interesting idea. I've just started Excession and hopefully it will be just as good.
     
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  13. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    The game sections are definitely great, but what I like most about this book are the clear and straightforward contrasts between 'regular life' (in Culture terms) of the first section, the journey, and the final clash in culture, politics and ideology that takes place during the game, plus the ramifications of it all when Gurgeh returns. It's exactly like the prototypical hero's journey, but the result is a subversion of everything good such a journey, if successful, is supposed to bring about. The revelation through experience and effort here isn't something to be proud of or something to take satisfaction in for the hard journey undertaken and a distant goal achieved. Instead, it is all very nihilistic, mechanistic, and the sympathies and comfort of his friends back home ring hollow. Even in this shortest, most lean of the Culture narratives, Banks abuses his protagonist and uses him as a puppet. He just does it with subtlety and skill.

    I always find two things a little funny - that Banks' Culture novels are considered Utopian and how grimdark in fantasy is so overtly exaggerated. If you look in between the Culture's supposed Utopian cracks, you'll find a chasm of grimdarkness that far surpasses the cruder grimdark representations in current fantasy. The tone of the Culture, even with all its cornucopia of wonders and magic and plenty and nonchalant zest for life, is cold and sometimes feels morally void despite the great Minds' protestations to the contrary.

    Horza in Consider Phlebas was right in essence, but his conclusions sprang mostly from an aspect of himself mired in self-loathing rather than any of the ideological impetus he originally claimed.

    Still some of the best written and absolutely most fun SF (or, let's face it, pretty much pure fantasy) written in a generation.
     
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  14. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Love Banks.

    People frequently refer to the Culture in the negative as "hedonistic", "bored", "apathetic". I think that misses the mark. Banks is telling us the story of unusual Culture citizens that are unfulfilled in a society that is deeply fulfilling and often quite engaged in the big picture. Supporting characters throughout depict the way people in the culture study, travel, take on issues. The books aren't Utopian, the setting is.

    Gurgeh is one of the very few main characters depicted that is actually a mainstream Culture citizen. Most main characters are either not from the Culture or are very much on the fringe.

    More than any other character, Gurgeh is the Culture. His existence seems unattractively pointless at first, but the breadth and depth of his intelligence and humanity as a Culture person is sufficient to topple an empire. He exemplifies the upside of the Culture, rather than being an atypical hero he is demonstrating who the citizens of the Culture truly are. Banks has the utmost respect for the people of the Culture - they are the best of humanity and all that we could hope to become while still being largely who we are today.
     
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  15. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I actually think this is a distinction without much difference. While the stories themselves take place without the Utopian setting of the Culture, the focus is almost completely on the society of the Culture. Other 'lesser' civs and attitudes are used as a comparison to highlight how bloody awesome Banks thinks the Culture is. And fair enough.

    And while Gurgeh is a mainstream Culture individual, he's frankly atypical. You say he exemplifies the upside of the Culture, but I think he brings all of the Culture's negative traits into focus. The Culture has opted to completely change and re-invent itself to suit a specific philosophy. They've gone so far as to change themselves not just physically, but completely transform their psychological mindset in a concerted effort to do away with what they perceive to be all the more barbaric, evolutionary, vestigial hangovers - everything from guilt, anger, competitiveness, etc., and I think, to even love. In an effort to bring about equality in all physical, societal and psychological aspects of life, they've made themselves bland and stagnant. Yes, there are many stupendous advantages to what they've achieved, and the multiplicity of technological, truly magical wonders cannot be denied and are seductive as hell, but the biological citizens have corralled themselves in grounds where the pursuit of pleasure is the only real purpose. Unlimited choice does bring about apathy. And the downside of living without any struggle or any consequence of action what-so-ever also demeans the value of their lives. If you cannot strive, then one has to wonder if there is any meaning at all. But then again, their very minds are different from ours, so they probably couldn't even conceive of what I'm talking about at an emotional and intuitive level. But Gurgeh has an inkling. He's that rare individual: perhaps whose genetics aren't quite as standard as with the average Culture population; perhaps those recessive factors that are mostly done away with feature more strongly in him. He is highly competitive. He wants to win. He desires something more than pleasure and is tired of ease. He feels he lacks purpose, but doesn't know how to formulate the feeling into any kind of focused expression.

    The only real sense of purpose now resides in that minute part of the Culture that is Contact, and the even more minuscule Special Circumstances within it. It's the AIs and the plans they enact through their partners-cum-puppets in Contact and SC that actually have real purpose. They guard their precious sheep from wolves. And what's more, they wish to domesticate the wolves as much as possible so as to eliminate all risk to their wards. It's one of the defining features of the Culture and its AIs - they want to eliminate all risk. It's no wonder that all the stories take place on the fringes of the Culture with many individuals who are not Culture themselves or are in SC. They're the only ones who strive for something, whatever the moral or ethical judgements one might place on their goals or purposes. Where there is struggle, there is story.

    Gurgeh is most definitely highly intelligent, but does he really have the kind of humanity that we take for granted? Azad is a caricature, and their barbarities would naturally make anyone who's not a psychopath recoil. But there is a period where even Gurgeh begins to understand and even empathise with certain facets of the empire. He must, if he's to win the games. But I'm not sure how much of bringing down the empire is his doing. He's a puppet in the end, as are the Azadians, pawns being played in a larger game of the Involveds.

    Banks loves the Culture, loves its paradoxical libertarian freedoms and rule by philosopher-kings. It's his secular Garden of Eden. But he sees no value in its individuals. It's all a game of numbers and statistics in the end. Individuals have no agency in his universe, and even if they think they do, more often then naught, their actions come to nothing, and they suffer for the trials. He proclaimed this with a bang in his first Culture novel, and the rest have all followed in this philosophical vein.

    Gurgeh goes through all that he does, and I think he feels sullied. In the end, there is nothing he can do but accept what fate has dealt him and hope to re-acclimatise himself with what he knew before. But he will never forget his disappointment with his hollow, almost Cadmean victory, and the nonchalant manner of his usage by higher powers. I wonder at his tears, that they might be rooted as much in impotent rage as they are in pain.
     
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  16. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I really don't think so. The classic "utopian novel" takes place primarily in and around the utopia to highlight the advantages of utopian societies. While Banks is rightly proud of his utopia, his books are about the conflicts that exist outside of it. The conflict doesn't come from inside the Culture aside from the fact that the Culture feels a moral obligation to act in the face of evil in the non-Culture parts of the galaxy.
    He isn't typical - he's the single greatest game player in the Culture. But he's a normal citizen with no special connection to Contact. He exemplifies the Culture because he contains all of the downsides to a utopia without being morally bankrupt, lazy, unloving, stupid or uncaring. His defeat of Azad is testament to an approach to life that is subtle, introspective, intelligent, essentially good, flexible and has a core of immense belief in the righteousness of its cause. Most of the story is about Gurgeh waking up to the fact that his core values supersede the pleasures of power and "winning" as Azad typifies. From there on out he plays as the Culture deals with the outside universe.

    This is Banks trying to tell us that liberalism isn't just cultural relevancy but the ability to choose right. It is similar to Stephenson's statement that there aren't good or bad people due to genes, but that some cultures are better than others.

    I don't see any of that reflected in Bank's work, and it frankly sounds like your personal philosophies about what you feel brings value to people imposed on the novel. Gurgeh is not unusual in being competitive or looking for meaning in life - lots of people in the Culture feel those things and go looking for them. That's who staffs Contact or studies foreign societies. The rest of the Culture, much like reasonably well off earth people, live fulfilled by daily activities, relationships, travel, art and entertainment. It is hard to say that the average Culture citizen is an apathetic layabout without believing pretty much the same thing about your typical middle class Westerner who also doesn't really struggle with the meaning of life or daily survival.

    Gurgeh likes to win, but not at the expense of any other human life. That's why he is culturally superior.

    Again, you're not getting that from the text. The humans of the Culture voted to go to war against the Iridians, rather than capitulate or simply leave the area. Many Culture humans died due to that choice.
    Which Involveds? The Azad aren't being externally supported, and the Minds aren't acting on someone else's behest. Gurgeh is chosen as a wildcard psychological weapon - the Mind's believe that he can ferment a collapse of the Azad culture from within by destroying their belief in the perfection of their competition based society, which Gurgeh does in part by playing as the Culture, rather than as the Azad would. Azad dies because its leader's essentially realize that the hippies are ultimately more powerful because of their values and the Azad are ultimately limited by theirs. The Minds identified this weekness and sent Gurgeh to act against this key log in the Azad system.

    Gurgeh returns home understanding and accepting that his place in the universe isn't simply existing but by being participant in the best that humanity has to offer. Returning home isn't a booby prize but a new awareness of himself and where he comes from.



    Ultimately, Banks is sketching a path forward that embraces technology in capitalist societies to transition to post scarcity economics without a collapse. He is observing that societies where individuals do not need to "compete" to survive tend to remain inventive while raising the level of culture, civil rights, quality of life and tolerance among its citizenry without becoming impotent.
     
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2017
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  17. Kanly

    Kanly Well-Known Member

    I love the wonders of the Culture and want to live there, but they are so freaking meddlesome and manipulative. The Player of Games is one of my favourite Culture books because it's such a simple and tight story, but the end result is the same as in many other Culture books - the main dude is taken for a spin and used by the higher AIs for their own purposes. But Gurgeh is lucky 'cause Banks doesn't have him ending up nearly as badly as Horza or Zakalwe or any of the many characters in Matter who meet horrible ends. He actually gets to have a great adventure and comes back in one piece, but he's definitely not the same anymore after having realized how insignificant he really is, and when he thought he was doing something new and worthwhile and of his own volition by playing Azad, but really, most of the likely outcomes had probably already been weighed and calculated by the Minds.
     
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2017
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  18. Kanly

    Kanly Well-Known Member

    I have a lot of favourite parts, but one of them is how Gurgeh becomes more and more Azadian the more he plays the game.
     

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