Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Player of Games

"This is not a heroic age," [Gurgeh] told the drone, staring at the fire. "The individual is obsolete. That's why life is so comfortable for us all. We don't matter, so we're safe. No one person can have any real effect anymore."

"Contact uses individuals," Chamlis pointed out. "It puts people into younger societies who have a dramatic and decisive effect on the fates of entire meta-civilizations. They're usually 'mercenaries,' nto Culture, but they're human, they're people."

"They're selected and used. Like game pieces. They don't count." (p. 22)

Player of Games is a book of layers, intricately constructed and meticulously engineered. Ferociously clever, Player of Games manipulates reader and character as one and makes its mark through its shifting focus and through what's there just off-screen to be either interpreted or rendered inconsequential. At the same time, it also manages to be a damn fun book.

Like most Culture books, Player of Games is not focused on the utopian Culture. The novel's main setting is the Empire of Azad, a brutal and imperialistic place focused on exactly what the Culture is not. In the Empire, people are defined by their status. Position in worth in the Empire are decided by the game of Azad, a game so complex and challenging that it is believed to be an accurate representation of life itself. The winners in the tournament rise in their careers, and the ultimate winner becomes the emperor.

Of course, a game to determine the emperor is a concept so bald facedly absurd that it's hard to approach it seriously, a metaphor so obvious that it seemingly loses all effect. In order to make the game work, Banks needs to draw a fine line – a step too far into the alien renders the concept comprehensible but unaffecting, a step too far to the familiar renders it absurd. This is a line that Banks walks well. Creating a world where everything is decided by a game would serve to cheapen and render silly the rest of the world. That's not what Banks has done. Instead, Banks has created a world of games within games, with only one of the layers being so brazen as to announce it as such. Azad society and interaction is itself artificial, devised and constructed, and it soon becomes clear that, in many ways, the Empire did not shape a game to resemble it but rather shaped itself to resemble a game. As a high ranking Azad official says two thirds of the way through the book, the Azad try to live according to the laws of God, Game, and Empire. (p. 220)

Azad is rendered exotic by several means beyond the game, some of which work better than others. Their society is divided into three sexes - male, female, and apex - but the division feels generally superficial, more for differentiation's sake than anything else; the apex's are human males for all intents and purposes. Still, such things are ultimately inconsequential when the feel of an area comes through as well as Banks depicts the Azad cities. For the majority of the book, we're cut off from the mainstream of Azad life as Gurgeh broods in hotel rooms and dominates in stadiums, but the moments when he enters the city at large are excellently rendered barrages of bizarre imagery:

They half walked, half ran down twisted wooden corridors, past many rooms and doors. He was lost in a maze of sensation; a welter of sounds (music, laughter, screams), sights (servants, erotic pictures, glimpsed galleries of packed, swaying bodies) and smells (food, perfume, alien sweats). (p. 160-1)

Coming from the Culture to the Empire of Azad, the "Player" of the book's title, is Gurgeh. Gurgeh does not fit in with the Culture, his very nature running counter to its central tenants. Left adrift in the Culture's post-scarcity society, Gurgeh has tried to give his life meaning through games. He has risen to the top of his field, and yet contentment did not follow success. Gurgeh lives for the rush that comes with winning a game and values himself according to his status and possessions; amidst the Culture's benevolent state of enlightened near-anarchy, Gurgeh is left with nothing he can truly achieve. When Gurgeh joins the Azad tournament, the competition's eventual turn into an ideological struggle is an obvious development, but that doesn't render it any less powerful. Walking through its cities, Gurgeh's viewpoint of the Azad is startlingly negative, and the events seen, the almost absurd pace with which atrocities are on occasion thrown at the reader, feels almost blatantly manipulative…

Which, of course, it is. The Culture may be benevolent, but it is surely not a fan of live and let live ideals. The fact that the reader is aware of the Culture's manipulation and the narrator is not does little to change its effects; the Empire of Azad is a horrifying place, and the reader cheers as the Culture targets the tyranny within it. But that's not to say that this is a black and white read. Reading the final pages of the novel leaves the reader with a feeling of deep ambivalence. It's near unquestionable that the Culture's society is "better" than the society of the old Empire, and yet this was not the natural movement of progress but rather liberty at the point of a foreign sword. While they may have been the "good guys," it's difficult for the reader to get over the final images of the Culture's Special Circumstances quite literally playing games with other civilizations, no matter their ultimate intentions.

Player of Games is far from the only intelligently crafted Banks novel. Far from it. In fact, you could even say that admirable structures that subtly reinforce the novel's theme are sort of Banks' thing. A more up in the air element is, sometimes, how the already referenced clever structure restricts the novel's success at being, you know, enjoyable. Matter, for instance, was arranged in a way that excellently highlighted the various levels of power at play – an organizational strategy that rendered the finale utterly unsatisfying even while it was intellectually interesting.

So how does Player of Games fair when it comes to the more visceral aspects of any novel, namely the reader's reaction to the characters and their drive to continue reading? Quite well, as it turns out. I wouldn't say that Player of Games is always as much fun as Surface Detail, but the novel also manages to accomplish far more. This is the best integration I've yet seen of Banks' two sides, namely the Let's Discuss Ethics, Right, and Motivations side and the Let's Build A Huge Space Ship With a Ton of Guns one, and the whole thing is spiced up by Banks' humor. While he's not as openly jocular here as in some later works, this is still a book that refrains from taking itself too seriously, something made abundantly clear by ship names like Gunboat Diplomat and So Much for Subtlety.

As Abigail Nasbaum noted in her review of the novel, Player of Games is structured like a sports story. Though there is the occasional – generally brief and not particularly satisfying – action sequence, the mainstay of the novel is the game of Azad and Gurgeh's struggles, both in-game and out, against the Empire's various master players. When dealing with a fictional game the rules of which are never disclosed, it's frankly a miracle that Banks manages to make Azad not only interesting but gripping enough to sustain the novel and draw the reader on.

Of course, most sports stories have a rather obvious conclusion: in the end, the good guy, the underdog, is going to win. It's possible that that's a statement more of my inexperience with sports stories than it is of the genre itself, but it still seems like a reasonable bet that the sympathetic guy who just happens to have a camera/author behind him every step of the way has slightly better odds than the antagonist when push comes to shove in the last scene. Furthermore, the revelation of Culture and Special Circumstances having been involved all along is roughly as surprising to the reader as the revelation that the trade paperback wasn't copied out by hand.

But this isn't a plot focused book in any sense of the word, something made abundantly clear by the lackadaisical pace of the opening section. This is, instead, a story of themes explored via characters, and Banks succeeds admirably at both of those goals. Gurgeh is not precisely likable, a result of his frequent callousness and naivet̩, but he is still sympathetic, and the society of the Azad is vivid enough that the reader will read on for every new scrap of information they get. Moments do drag here and there Рmost noticeably at the several points when Gurgeh just figures he'll sit back and let things play out Рbut none of those moments are anywhere close to fatal.

Player of Games is a masterful science fiction novel, one of the clearest examples of Science Fiction as a vehicle to explore ideas and ideologies that I've ever seen. This is a thought provoking novel that will thrill you while it troubles you, and this is (so far) the best novel I've read by one of Science Fiction's most imaginative and intelligent authors. Essential.

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