2018: The Year in Books – ‘The Player of Games’ by Iain M. Banks

(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

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.

Thanks for reading. If you liked this post, and do the whole regrettable Twitter thing, follow me on Twitter here.

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’.




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2018: The Year in Books – ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien

(In part five of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a collection of stories about the Vietnam war. It’s really good. I honestly don’t have any jokes for this first part so I’m just going to get started.)

The Buy The Audiobook Version Because Bryan Cranston Narrates It and He Does a Great Job Award 

Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien was an infantryman in the 23rd Infantry Division of the US Army during the Vietnam war. The Things They Carried is a series of linked short stories that follows the 23rd Infantry Division; O’Brien himself regularly, but not always, appearing as the viewpoint character.

Each story describes some true event in O’Brien’s experience of the war: the death of his fellow soldier Ted Lavender; Henry Dobbins wearing the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck as a kind of good-luck talisman; O’Brien’s first experience of killing an enemy soldier, and imagining the life life that man must have lived before he took it away.

Only, they’re not true events. In a later story O’Brien tells us that he didn’t in fact kill that man – he merely saw him die. Why, then, write the story that way? Why – if these stories are fiction, not fact – place himself in them as a central character? Because these stories are true, even if they’re not.

O’Brien introduces us to what he calls ‘story truth’ and ‘happening truth’. The stories in The Things They Carried are true, in large part because they didn’t technically happen, or at least didn’t happen in exactly the way described. They truthfully describe the war, and how it felt to be there, far more so than a factual account of what happened from day to day ever could.

And he’s right. Or else, why would anyone write fiction? To quote The History Boys: “with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words.’ If it is a work of art there are no other words.” Stories are – at their very heart – ways of communicating important things that can’t be said any other way. You can’t describe what it’s like to look at the world through your eyes; to see what you see; to be on the other side of the world with a rifle in your hands, watching someone – a stranger – your enemy – a person – die. But a story can.

And O’Brien’s stories do. They tell you about long days of nothing –  monotonous walking from point A to point B, then from point B to point C, and onwards. They tell you about someone being there, and then you turn away and there’s a flash of light and they’re not anymore, and you spend the rest of the day gathering what’s left of them to send back on the next helicopter home. They tell you about sinking into waist-deep mud under enemy fire, just waiting out the night. Do I know what war is like? Not one bit, but I know something of what Tim O’Brien’s war was like.

The stories in The Things They Carried are beautifully written – at times funny, at others genuinely devastating. They’re lies – possibly all of them. But they’re the kind of lies that tell you the truth.

Thanks for reading this post. Go and read (or ideally listen to the audiobook – the narration might actually be Bryan Cranston’s best work, in my opinion) The Things They Carried. If you liked this post, and do the whole regrettable Twitter thing, follow me on Twitter here.


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2018: The Year in Books – ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

(In part four of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a novel set in a fantasy world where rich, white suburbanites act like spoiled children. Is it just a fun story, or can this strange land of Shaker Heights, Ohio teach us something about the real world?)

The Rich People Are Actually Just Not Good Award 

Celeste Ng – Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere describes the life of the Richardsons – a comfortably well-off family in the exclusive, all-American suburb of Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland, Ohio. The Richardsons are a perfect family: the mother, Elena, a journalist for the local paper, the father an important lawyer, the children varying shades of academic and athletic excellence. Except for Izzy, who is rude and rebellious and not quite what a community such as Shaker Heights is looking for.

Into this idyllic (obviously actually suffocating and awful for anyone with a shred of self-awareness) world comes Mia, and her daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, one who lives a deliberately frugal, bohemian lifestyle, and who never settles in one place for too long. Needless to say, Elena Richardson just cannot handle this.

How can someone actually want that life? Scraping by on part-time waitressing jobs, and the occasional income from her artwork? Sleeping on futons and sitting on crappy, old couches bought second-hand – never really owning anything, and never really belonging anywhere?

For a while Little Fires Everywhere follows the lives of Elena Richardson, her children, Mia, and Pearl. Elena decides to ‘do a good deed’ and let Mia and Pearl rent a floor of her second house for well below market rates. Teenage Pearl and the teenage Richardson children become friends, and the expected teenage things happen. Mia and Elena have some brief interactions where Elena exercises her power as benevolent feudal lord in ways that are subtle to her; blindingly obvious, visible-from-space to Mia.

It’s compelling (if a little aimless at times), and Celeste Ng’s skill for writing characters really shines. But of course it can’t last. Eventually scandal rocks Shake Heights, and everyone picks a side. Elena and Mia are on opposite sides, each tangentially involved, and needless to say Elena Richardson just cannot handle this.

From here Little Fires Everywhere gradually changes from a story about fitting in (and not fitting in) in this rich, exclusive neighbourhood, to the story of Elena Richardson: an outright villain. And the best kind of villain: a villain who’s convinced they’re only doing what is right and reasonable. A villain who would be genuinely baffled – scandalised even – if someone were to question her, or her concept of fairness and justice. A villain with a position in high society, and who will use every social privilege at her disposal to thumb the scales, and expose the liars and cheats and grifters who all just happen to be the exact people who respectfully disagree with her.

In other words, Little Fires Everywhere is a book about the balance of power in society, and how it is invisible to some (the people with power), and incredibly visible to others (the people without it). It uses Ng’s unmatched ability to get into the heads of her characters to show the way baffling amounts of social privilege can completely change a person’s way of thinking.

But instead of (just) portraying things from the underdog’s perspective, or having an author stand-in character to occasionally say ‘wow, she’s being a bit awful here, isn’t she?’, Ng eagerly embraces Elena Richardson’s point of view. She is almost never challenged – what she does is portrayed as obviously right and fair and reasonable – and the reader is expected to be smart enough to recognise that she is an absolute monster, though sadly not an exceptional one.

I’m going to finish this with a quotation, so I can make myself look smart: Endo Shusaku once wrote “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Little Fires Everywhere is this Endo Shusaku quotation: The Novelisation.

Elena Richardson never, ever understands what she did wrong. She digs into people’s past, invades people’s privacy, breaks a handful of quite important laws, and just about ruins two (or possibly three) people’s lives. But will she ever be aware of that fact – will she connect the dots and realise just how awful she is? Of course not. Never in a million years. And that’s precisely what makes her just the worst.

Thanks for reading this important piece of literary analysis (it has a quote in it, so you know it’s important). If you liked it, and do the whole regrettable Twitter thing, follow me on Twitter here.


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