(In part six of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a science fiction book that is neither ‘space lasers and jedi men’ space fantasy, nor ‘giant abstract babies orbiting earth’ weirdness. Strange, I know. But I think you’ll like it – even if you’re not generally a reader of science fiction.)
The Science Fiction is Good Actually I’ll Have You Know Award
Iain M. Banks – The Player of Games
I first started reading The Player of Games a decade ago, but gave up after less than thirty pages. It just seemed to be about some tired man being a bit listless. How could this be science fiction, I thought, considering the blatant lack of lasers and/or proper explosions?
Earlier this year I noticed it languishing at the bottom of my collection, and thought I might as well give it another go. With the added wisdom of ten extra years of definitely-not-wasted life, would I find something to love in this book? (spoiler: obviously yes)
The Player of Games is part of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series – the titular Culture being a post-scarcity, interstellar anarchist-utopia where humans and sentient AI live together in harmony. Since everyone’s needs are met almost instantly, people start looking for something to occupy their time. For many, games fill this space, and for some they become an obsession.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh (I promise this book has the minimum of bullshit science fiction names in it) is perhaps the greatest game player in the entire Culture, able to master even the most complex, esoteric board and card games from across the galaxy.
Tired of his easy life of luxury, Gurgeh signs up for Contact – the organisation tasked with establishing and maintaining relations with non-Culture societies. Soon he’s sent to the Empire of Azad (this is the last weird name I’m going to use, please trust me) – a militaristic autocracy where one’s ranking at a single impossibly-complex board game determine one’s station in life. Everything from civil servants, to top generals, to the very emperor himself, are chosen by how well one does in this game.
It’s Gurgeh’s job to master this impossible game, and hold his own as representative of the Culture against this backward, murderous regime.
So, The Player of Games is about games – how the games a culture creates, and the way they play them, can say something fundamental about that culture’s philosophical or political outlook. And how a single game can become all-important – eclipsing any other concern – to the two playing it. But, like many great science fiction novels, it’s also about encountering another culture – another utterly alien worldview and way of life – and coming away from it changed.
The first third of the book, before Gurgeh leaves the safety of the Culture, is good reading, but very listless. It’s never explicitly stated to the reader, (this book is impressively subtle and restrained for a book about alien societies competing via made-up board game) and everyone seems to be having an all right time, but the Culture is boring.
In a world where no one wants for anything, what gives our lives meaning? What can you do to fill up the time, except fritter it away on games and travel and lots and lots of parties? Is this a bad life? Of course not, but to Gurgeh, at least, it’s increasingly unfulfilling.
But in the proletariat-crushing, alien race-massacring, violently sexist culture of Azad, he finds something he was lacking. A strong purpose – to rebuke this awful worldview, as champion of the egalitarian Culture? Maybe just that, at first. But as the novel goes on, and Gurgeh spends more time on this foreign world, he starts to understand how these people think, and how that’s reflected in the way they play the game. And it starts to have an influence on his own way of thinking.
Because despite (or perhaps because of) the inequality, violence, and staggering unfairness of Azad, it’s impossible to argue that it’s not more interesting than the Culture. The Culture is boring, safe, comfortable – Azad is full of the kind of conflict and struggle that can give one’s life meaning.
One of the most interesting threads in The Player of Games is how malleable our way of thinking can be – how our environment determines a large part of who we are, and how a new environment can change just as much of us. As someone living halfway around the world in an extremely different culture, there’s a lot I recognise. (not so much the ‘evil interstellar empire’ part, though)
The Player of Games loves dealing with high concepts – warring ideologies; the difficulty of finding meaning in a world of automated luxury; the power of games to define people and cultures. But Banks is also exceptionally good at the personal – his characters are multifaceted, complicated, and at times baffling in that way only great characters can be. His depiction of the boring-yet-safe-and-perfect-yet-boring Culture, and the savage-but-you-have-to-admit-kind-of-cool Empire of Azad are nuanced, and thoughtful – very nearly approaching Ursula K. Le Guin’s anthropology-science fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness.
And as I said before, all this is approached with an admirable subtlety that prevents the Great Battle of Cultures from descending into farce. You’re never told the message, nor even expected to figure out the author’s Singular Message for yourself. This is very much ‘your own conclusions’ territory – ‘applicability rather than allegory’ territory – which in my books is the very best territory to be in.
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To end this post, let’s play a game of ‘No One Knows What the Hell To Do With Science Fiction Book Covers’. I mean, just look at these ones I found online. You can tell the illustrators heard ‘sci fi novel’ and immediately stopped listening and drew a laser blowing up a ship, only to be told sternly ‘no, it’s actually about board games’ before panicking for a month and drawing something an hour before the deadline.
Vote for your favourite in the comments below. My personal favourite is ‘Ponytail Guy and Man Sitting On Transparent Box of Fossils Play Board Game Next to Big Fire’, but I also have space in my heart for ‘Cool Man Posing Next to Incongruous Pink Statue’.