Player of Games, The by Banks, Iain M. , 1988

Player of Games, The by Banks, Iain M.  - Book cover from

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You call it enjoyment to lose your house, your titles, your estates; your children maybe; to be expected to walk out onto the balcony with a gun and blow your brains out? That's enjoyment? We're well free of that. You want something you can't have, Gurgeh. You enjoy your life in the Culture, but it can't provide you with sufficient threats; the true gambler needs the excitement of potential loss, even ruin, to feel wholly alive.

I generally consider myself to be very well-read in the SF genre. In fact, in the last few years I've come to realize that there is little of the old stuff that I want or need to read, so I've begun turning my attention to the newer SF novels and stories. Up until the late 1990's I had a subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it was there and in the occasional issue of Asimov's that I found many of the modern authors that I enjoy. It was years ago when Gordon van Gelder started, in my opinion, to load the magazine with fantasy that I canceled my subscription. Suffice it to say, I am not a great fantasy fan. But before I did so I could not help but take notice of the "Scottish SF Enlightenment," as van Gelder described it. A number of Scottish authors graced the pages of MoF&SF during that time, such as Stross, MacDonald and others. I don't recall ever seeing Banks in the pages of the magazine, but he was almost always mentioned in the introductory blurbs that van Gelder placed before the stories of other Scottish authors. Based on his recommendations I tried two of Banks' novels; Feersum Endjinn and The Algibraist. I could not stand either one, and put both down before finishing. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Banks' well known Culture novels. The internet fluffer-mill certainly has gone into high gear over these books; I have yet to see a bad review of any of them. But as you all know already, the internet-fool rumor mill is nothing to base an opinion on. A few weeks ago while on vacation I read Banks' 1988 Culture novel called The Player of Games. I was very impressed, especially by the setting, but also by the story and characterization.

The Culture is Banks' name for a vast, loose conferderation of humanoid civilizations that approximates roughly to the traditional star empire. Though I have only read one book (and started another, actually, called Use of Weapons), it looks as if all of the citizens of the Culture reside either on enormous sentient starships that ply the depths with something akin to Big-Helmet's Ludicrous Speed Drives, or on artificial rings called "Orbitals," that encircle planets. The denizens of the Culture reside inside of a realized utopia that is maintained by AI, and outside by human/AI teams who work for a division of government called Contact. You see, the society may have achieved a self-described place of perfection, but certain elements of the Culture have not allowed that achievement to blind them to the realities of the universe. They know that outside the boundaries of the Culture there are wolves that must either be bred into pups, or put down before they can cause any real damage. Contact is charged with finding the dens in which these packs reside. They bear the caress, and do what they can to inculcate those new societies peacefully into the Culture. But if that cannot be accomplished, another division called Special Circumstances steps in with the cudgel and eliminates the problem before it can cause any noticeable disruption. The fear is, as in any complex society, that the center will not hold if pressed too hard. The job of Contact and the Special Circumstances division is to prevent that pressure from ever being applied.

The story is about a citizen of the Culture, Gurgeh, and what happens when he becomes mixed up in an espionage war between Special Circumstances and a fledgling, war-like empire of humanoids in the Magellanic Clouds called simply The Empire. Gurgeh is a somewhat typical citizen of the Culture, although he does have a great deal of fame. He is a master game player who is renown throughout the Culture for his gaming abilities. Gurgeh spends his life writing articles for publication in journals about games theory and traveling occasionally from one game convention to another. He is one of the best players of games in the Culture. He is happy with what he does for a living, but has grown bored with his career, and possibly with the lifestyle that the Culture has to offer. As a master of gaming Gurgeh is naturally very competitive, but life in the Culture is practically competition free. There is no economy and no requirement that one work to survive. The Culture provides everything that one needs, including living space and the tools to make that space into whatever one desires. Transportation over impossibly vast distances is given away. The accumulation of wealth and property of any kind is anathema to any citizen of the Culture. Despite his longing for different experiences, Gurgeh is fully indoctrinated into the lifestyle that the Culture has to offer. But its only when he is removed from that life that he realizes that it is his safety net, and that he probably cannot live without it.

After a longish introduction that establishes that Gurgeh's immense skill does not extend to live-action war games, and that he is unsatisfied on some level with his life, the action of the story begins. Gurgeh is challenged to a game called Stricken by an up-and-coming game player, a mouse of a girl who nevertheless has wildly dangerous skills. During a break in the game - which lasts all night - Gurgeh is approached by one of his companion drones, a slightly off-kilter ex-military drone named Mawhrin-Skel. Mawhrin is a defective drone with a testy temperament; the Culture was a fully integrated society of AI drones and various humanoid species. The drones in the Culture are artificially intelligent and fully co-equal robotic citizens, and have rights equal to humanoids. In fact, it seems to me that the AI run things, but that's probably a discussion best saved for when I've read more of these novels. Anyway, AI personalities are produced rather than bred, but the Culture's engineers just start the bud of a personality, then allow it to develop naturally before implanting into an artificial body. Mawhrin was originally produced to be a military drone. Had his personality developed normally it would have been given immensely powerful weapons. Alas, something went wrong during it's development phase and a personality defect developed. Contact decided early in Mawhrin's "life" that it could not be trusted with weaponry so powerful, so it was freed from its responsibilities and stripped of its equipment. That never sat well with Mawhrin. The drone fumed over its lost potential. To get it back, it set Gurgeh up. During the break in the game with the young phenom Mawhrin offered to give Gurgeh some inside information that would virtually guarantee victory; Mawhrin offered to help Gurgeh cheat. Against his better judgment Gurgeh took the information, cheated and won the game. Gurgeh cemented his reputation in the game playing community, but left himself open as a pawn in Mawhrin's quest.

The next day Mawhrin demanded that Gurgeh use his immense star power to get it assigned back to the military division of Contact. Now, as it happened, Gurgeh not only had enough star power that he could conceivably do this, but Contact wanted him anyway. They had recently discovered the Empire in the distant Magellanic Clouds, and saw a threat from them that must be dealt with. The Empire was a decent sized and advanced star empire that had not yet grown out of their galaxy, but was rapidly expanding. Contact wanted Gurgeh because their society was based entirely upon the outcome of an enormous game called Azad.

And it was true that, as he'd been told, there was one constant in all the numbing variety of Azadian life; the game of Azad permeated every level of society, like a single steady theme nearly buried in a cacophony of noise, and Gurgeh started to see what the drone Worthil had meant when it said Contact suspected it was the game that held the Empire together. Nothing else seemed to.

The Empire used the game to decide who would be Emperor, and who would fill all of the various bureaucratic positions in the Empire's government, from civil service to military to executive offices. Contact and Special Circumstances wanted Gurgeh to enter the game as a player. They told him that they hoped he would become a mid-level bureaucrat who could help indoctrinate the Empire to the Culture's way of doing things; as a way of normalizing relations and hopefully changing and absorbing the Empire into the Culture as members. Gurgeh craved the adventure that was being offered to him, but was too lazy and frightened to go. Mawhrin's threats of revealing his secret pushed him into accepting, conditioned only upon Contact recommissioning Mawhrin in Special Circumstances. Eventually Contact agreed, and Gurgeh was put onto a voyage of several years, from the Milky Way to the Magellenic Clouds.

Much of the rest of the story is about Gurgeh's culture shock, and the playing of the tournament levels of the game of Azad. Gurgeh and his drone assistant, Flere-Imsaho, were instructed to lie to people of the Empire about the Culture's capability and level of technology. This grated at Gurgeh and Flere-Imsaho (who was instructed to smoke occasionally and make sparks, as if the Culture's technology were lesser than the Empire's), but they did so. The deception wound up serving them well. As the initial levels of tournament play ended, the citizens of the Empire began to grow more and more concerned that Gurgeh would win - that he would go all the way. Gurgeh played through the early seeds of the game, winning all the way. The Empire viewed this as beginner's luck, and scoffed at the lowly man of an inferior empire. But before he got into the higher rounds of the game it became obvious that he just may win the whole thing. So the Empire fabricated a story that Gurgeh was knocked out of the tournament by a Supreme Court justice. Gurgeh went along, of course, because to fight would probably mean death. However the upper levels of play would be on another planet, and in the interest of good relations with the Culture, Gurgeh was allowed to continue playing - he just would not gain any more advantage in position in the government should he win. And win he did. Gurgeh went all the way to the finals with the Emperor, Nicosar, and it was there that the Special Circumstances division showed Gurgeh and the Empire their true colors. All along Gurgeh's opponents had not been too concerned about Gurgeh or the Culture. They were, in the minds of the Empire's players, vastly inferior and presented no threat. But before the final game Special Circumstances stepped in and showed Nicosar what the Culture really was and how easily it could crush the Empire if it wished. Nicosar played the final game with the hopelessness of his cause in the forefront of his mind; he played the game as if he were fighting the Culture (and losing) and not just Gurgeh, who despite his position as a game player was in the middle of a rather heated combat.

That is not to say that Gurgeh was without a horse in that race. Flere-Imsaho went to great lengths to show Gurgeh - without plainly telling him - why Special Circumstances was doing what it was doing. It showed Gurgeh the underbelly of the Empire, and to be truthful, the nasty goings on in the Empire reminded me a great deal of what happens here on Earth. Of course there are all the trappings of our society; things such as needless ego-boosting titles and ceremony, classes, hierarchies, ownership, selfish accumulation of wealth and power, unfair laws and all of the twisted personalities that come out of that kind of system, such as the poor doing the "righteous" dirty-work of the rich. But there was also much worse, such as slavery, murder, rape, and torture, most of it broadcast on secret channels for viewing only by the "Apecies," who were the most powerful in the triad families formed by the citizens of the Empire (they had three genders, all of which were required to produce a child). Banks contrasted all of this well with the Culture, which had no laws and largely no crime either, but also had "no motives." In a society where anything was allowed and anything could be gotten by merely asking for it, the "spread of happiness" was a mandate of government (such as it is). In essence the final game was less a game and a battle of armies than it was a battle of ideas. Special Circumstances convinced Nicosar that there was no way in hell he could win a war with the Culture, thus the real purpose of the entire operation was achieved; the elimination of a threat, and not the indoctrination of a potential partner. Just imagine what the realization of that fact did to Gurgeh, who was fully a citizen of the "benevolent" Culture, and like the rest was oblivious to what happened outside of the Culture's boundaries.

There's not too much that can be said technically about Bank's novel. It's well enough written, and it flows well. There are a number of mysteries hidden in the earlier pages in which hindsight will benefit a reader, so it's a good idea to read this one twice. Banks is skilled, but not a master of the written form. But that doesn't seem to be the point anyway. This book is jam packed with excellent ideas that are very, very well thought out and presented, not the least of which are the combining of the libertarian and technological aspects of Culture life, but especially his use of espionage tropes and games theory. I believe that Banks has accumulated some mainstream cred with these stories (and not solely because he has in fact written a number of popular mainstream books), even though this one reads to me like a true SF genre story. More, Banks' characters are incredibly well drawn. It don't want to spoil too much with Mawhrin, so I'll just say that his character is very well drawn and full of surprises. Gurgeh's character is also very well done, especially with the way that just about everything that he does in the novel can be traced either to stupidity, fear, or as a consequence of the character flaw shown in the first quotation in this review. I can see why Banks' star shines brighter because of these books. Banks is about ideas, and the Culture novels seem to be a complete, thorough and welcome updating of tired, old tropes. But I will keep a watch, and I certainly will read more Iain M. Banks.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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