Review – The Player of Games

PlayerofGamesI probably owe Iain M. Banks an apology. I started his first “Culture” novel Consider Phlebas a few years ago, but was unimpressed and stopped reading around page 50. Then I read his non-SF book The Wasp Factory last year; while I found the atmosphere wonderfully claustrophobic and dank, the “maggots in the brain” scene struck me as a puerile stunt (I think I actually said “Give me a break!” out loud on the Munich U-Bahn) and the big reveal at the end felt like the nervous move of a young writer not trusting his own talent.

But now that I’ve read The Player of Games, I can see why Banks has such a fervid following. His prose isn’t particularly elegant, his dialogue is workmanlike, and the mechanics of his plots are pretty standard space opera stuff, all as I’d discovered with Consider Phlebas. His larger vision, however — specifically the progressive anarchist utopian Culture — will certainly be his legacy to science fiction; and it’s an inspiring one, a fully realized vision of a Total Wealth utopia where everyone pursues their own destiny free of poverty, repression, or illness.

As has been pointed out by Banks himself, a post-scarcity utopia without any real dark side to explore isn’t really a fruitful setting for drama, so he usually writes about conflicts between the Culture and other less-enlightened civilizations. In this case, the title character Jernau Morat Gurgeh visits the Empire of Azad to compete in the complicated game, also called Azad, that determines their entire social structure. Blackmailed into competing (reputation is really the only governing force in the Culture), Gurgeh is a reluctant emissary, but he soon grows to dominate the competition.

There’s a stunning scene in the middle of the book where the Culture drone accompanying Gurgeh reveals to him the side of the empire he hasn’t yet seen, forcing him to confront its vicious underbelly. What’s so effective about this, of course, is that it’s more or less our own society (at least outside Scandinavia…). The brutally expansionist military hegemony, and the cruelty underpinning the society through corporate power, class warfare, and racism, are completely recognizable, and the “outside looking in” effect of seeing it through the eyes of a utopian citizen is masterfully written. It feels like a horrifying fever dream of the modern world, echoing a very similar segment in Le Guin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed.

Unfortunately, Banks overplays his hand soon after, in a scene where a character brags about grotesqueries like drums made from human skin and flutes made from human femurs while practically licking his lips in sadistic ecstasy. Banks is basically letting us off the hook here, allowing us to distance our own society from the brutalities he portrays. Probably he didn’t intend to let us off the hook; more likely, he just wanted to seal the deal and make sure we don’t identify with the empire before he takes it down. It’s a failure to trust the reader, though, and it resembles the similar nervousness that weakens The Wasp Factory.

Aside from that, though, the book’s solid. I’m pretty eager to continue exploring the Culture now and will be reading more Banks soon.

Stray observations:

  • Although citizens of the Culture can and do easily change sex back and forth, and homosexuality has absolutely no social stigma attached, Banks makes a point of mentioning that Gurgeh has never engaged in either. More nervousness! The book was published in 1988 – I suspect that, given his politics, Banks wouldn’t have bothered making that point if he’d written the book later.
  • The name Gurgeh kept reminding me of Gurgi, the Gollum-like character from Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron.
  • I hadn’t realized, until reading a bit about it online, that the Culture is not Earthlings in the far future (in the not-readily-available-in-the-US novella “State of the Art“, a Contact scout visits 1970s Earth). This disappointed me a bit, though it’s not Banks’s fault — for some reason, I just really prefer SF that shows our own future. I would’ve loved it if Star Wars had opened with “A quarter million years from now…” (implying that it’s our future) instead of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” — though probably I would’ve been the only one. Clearly I don’t have an ear for the iconic, and George Lucas does.
  • Probably like most readers, I often get a first image of a character that I find impossible to shake, no matter how inappropriate it may be or how clearly the author delineates his version of the character’s physical appearance. Obviously sometimes it can be due to the film version: Dashiell Hammett memorably describes Sam Spade as looking like “a blond Satan” but it’s the rare reader that doesn’t instead picture Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. In this case, Gurgeh is sketchily described as a dark humanoid with curly hair and a beard, sort of a Jeffrey Wright type. But who flashed into my head in the first few pages, for god knows what reason, and refused to get out? This guy:


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