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The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Book Name: The Player of Games
Author: Iain M. Banks
Publisher(s): Macmillan
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Release Date: 1988

Morat Gurgeh is bored. The game player has reached the apex of his profession and lives a privileged and hedonistic life on his own mountain range playing games, writing papers and attending parties. Sheltered by the utopian Culture, the egalitarian, socialist, humanist society that underpins most of Banks’ science-fiction, Gurgeh begins to wonder if games can have meaning in a society where people want for nothing and consequently can win nothing. So while Gurgeh is a misfit he is a subtle one. He picks at the seams of the Culture’s supposed perfection in quiet ways asking whether the stakes are integral to the game and whether victory itself is enough.

Gurgeh’s malaise is interrupted by the arrival of a Drone, one of the Culture’s sentient machines, who persuades him to cheat for the first time in his life in an effort to achieve a perfect victory at the game of Stricken, something never before accomplished by a human player. So begins a chain of events that sees Gurgeh working for Contact, the Culture’s diplomatic branch, on a mission to the empire of Azad.

Aggressive, feudal, hierarchical, Azad is everything the Culture is not, and the empire draws both its power-structure and its name from the most complex game ever devised. The game determines not only who will rule, but which tendencies within the ruling class will have the upper hand, which economic theories will be ascendant, and which creeds and political policies will be pursued.

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; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.

The beginning of the novel concerning Gurgeh’s malaise and his subsequent journey to the empire of Azad is somewhat prosaic. There is enough to maintain interest certainly, for Banks’ invention and subversive wit is frequently breathtaking and the Culture as a setting remains compelling, yet ultimately the book’s opening chapters lack substance and depth. Mirroring the superficiality of Gurgeh’s existence a little too closely the opening reads very much like a warm up act, lacking the expansive grace of Banks’ more complex and challenging writing.

Yet as Gurgeh begins to play the game the book hits its stride. Slowly, predictably the player of games begins to fall in quiet love with Azad, both game and empire. In them he finds a dimension that was missing from his life, a sense of danger, of risk, of challenge and of consequence. But the honeymoon cannot last forever and eventually Gurgeh is shown the undercity of the empire where the disenfranchised and the dispossessed reside. Occupying only eight pages the section is a brutal punch to the gut. Previously Banks had revealed the opulence and hospitality of the empire, with only scant second hand accounts or vague hints as to what may lie beneath, but now the gloves come off:

Gurgeh looked at the damaged people and felt dizzy; the gritty surface of the street beneath him seemed to tip and heave. For a moment it was as though the city, the planet, the whole empire swirled around him in a frantic spinning tangle of nightmare shapes; a constellation of suffering and anguish, an infernal dance of agony and mutilation.

Inequality, homelessness, violence, crime, substance misuse, discrimination and depression; as Gurgeh witnesses Azad’s cruelties for himself Banks does little to hide the fact that the empire is us. Its failures are ours. Humanity’s war and greed, our envy and calumny and hate and pain are upscaled and taken to their most extreme conclusions. We see them through the eyes of someone who has moved beyond it all, someone who can regrow lost limbs, someone who lives in a society with no money, no injustice, no need for suffering beyond the need to be intellectually stimulated. And yet despite the moral high ground and the unashamed flag waving on behalf of the Culture that the book indulges in Gurgeh needs the empire, needs to claim its visceral, primitive, competitive spaces as his own.

Finally Gurgeh is exposed to the underground television channels of the empire, the sadistic, torturous entertainment encrypted only for those who progress highest in the game:

The man’s eyes glittered in the screen-light, unused photons reflecting from the halo of iris. The pupils widened at first, then shrank, became pinpoints. The drone waited for the wide, staring eyes to fill with moisture, for the tiny muscles around the eyes to flinch and the eyelids to close and the man to shake his head and turn away, but nothing of the sort happened. The screen held his gaze, as though the infinitesimal pressure of the light it spent upon the room had somehow reversed, and so sucked the watching man forward, to hold him, teetering before the fall, fixed and steady and pointed at the flickering surface like some long-stilled moon.

Like the terrible death scene in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man we are not allowed to see directly. What we glimpse is not the event itself, but the human reaction. The relationship between playing the game successfully and the relentless inhumanity of the empire is illustrated by way of something fundamentally human yet also tellingly universal. The Culture meets Azad’s culture and finds it lacking.

For the reader the beauty of the game of Azad is that it exists as a concept so complex, so rich in possibilities yet so flexible in application that it can stand as a physical representation for nebulous and competing political and cultural ideologies that are often difficult to convey successfully in fiction. As he marshals his response to the horrors he has witnessed Gurgeh realises that despite this rich tapestry of possibility and the cultural transformation he is undergoing, his play has always been a reflection of himself and the Culture from which he comes:

[…] he played 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.

While it may appear baffling, even frustrating that Gurgeh takes so long to come to this conclusion when the possibility of Azad as manifestation of ideology was outlined to him, albeit on a less grandiose scale, as part of his introduction to the game, at stake is the book’s central conceit and two competing philosophies. Firstly that you cannot fully embrace a new culture without losing your own, and secondly that the signatures of culture imprinted upon those raised within it can never truly be erased. Gurgeh embraces Azad so fully that he begins to lose himself, yet even throughout this process he unconsciously plays as a man of the Culture, allowing its talismanic philosophies, its core values to shape his play. Banks never fully resolves this contradiction, nor does he have to. It is enough simply to demand the reader examine issues of heritage and inheritance anew, issues that remain intensely relevant almost twenty years after the book was first published.

Despite its successes, The Player of Games is a little too straightforward to be a classic. Its direction too obvious, its twist too expected, the arc of its protagonist’s journey too well trodden. Gurgeh is naïve to the point of foolishness, particularly regarding the political machinations behind his journey, and one cannot help but feel that, after Consider Phlebas, Banks has aimed lower and not risen as far. But despite its failings The Player of Games reveals and revels in the breadth of a mind so grandiose and joyful and full of the expansive and imaginative possibilities of the genre that you cannot help but be swept along with in its wake. It is a mind that will truly be missed.


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