Re-Reading Iain M. Banks’ “The Player of Games”

I remember the prominent display that Iain M. Banks’ _The Player of Games_ enjoyed in the London bookstore from which I bought it. I remember the general layout of the store, and I have a sense of the street onto which it fronted, but I don’t remember the reason why I picked up the novel. I was looking for something to read, and I guess something about the cover appealed to me. I had not heard of Iain M. Banks previously, and while perhaps some part of me now wishes I had known about him sooner, it does not detract in any way from all the enjoyment I have received since from reading his Culture series — nor from the sadness I felt at learning he was leaving writing behind to enjoy his remaining time however he wishes. (And, as a family man myself, good for him. More on this family matter later, perhaps.)

_The Player of Games_ was first published in 1988, but I stumbled across it in that London bookstore in 1997. By that time, Banks had published four of the nine novels that would become _The Culture_ series and its one collection of short stories: _Consider Phlebas_ (1987), _The Player of Games_ (1988), _Use of Weapons_ (1990), _The State of the Art (1991) — the collection of short stories, and _Excession_ (1996). (I should note that I am using the Wikipedia entry to define novels in the series: it leaves out a novel like _The Algebraist_, which in my mind contained a reference to the Culture, but now I will need to re-read it.)

On a whim, in the middle of re-reading some of Alastair MacLean’s novels that constituted my introduction, for the most part, to adult literature, I found myself in front of our living room’s bookshelves and staring at the stretch of Banks novels. There are not that many such stretches of novels by single authors. Further along the same shelf are Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center novels, except, curiously, the first one, which I have never read. Other spans of books that I can name without looking at the shelves are the previously named MacLeans and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. (Curiously, they are all British authors.)

Re-reading _The Player of Games_, a novel in which the protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is, it turns out, tricked into playing the role of champion of the Culture in an exercise, a game, that lies at the heart of a empire. The Azadian Empire is a nasty affair, containing many, if not all, of the worst elements of our own human cultures: racism, sexism, willingness by the powerful to exploit everyone less powerful by any means not only necessary but also pleasurable. It is, as the ship _Limiting Factor_ notes at one point in the middle of the novel in a conversation with Gurgeh, “a guilty system [that] recognizes no innocents” (171).

The novel’s focus is Gurgeh’s own developing consciousness of, and involvement in the game of Azad, the same name as the empire itself and the game through which positions within the power structure are determined, and some of the most compelling moments in the novel are those in which Gurgeh’s consciousness is fully immersed in the game play and Banks’ narration allows us to see the development of game play as Gurgeh himself sees it. Eventually Gurgeh realizes that he has been playing as a Culture person would play. In fact, for those familiar with _Consider Phlebas_ and its description of how the Culture came to rally itself in the moment of the Idiran War. The history we glimpse in the early novel is that the war did not go well for the Culture at first, which, playing by its own rules of prizing life and peace above all else did not know how to respond to the single-minded, religiously-guided aggression of the Idirans. As the Culture came to grips with the fact that it was at war, it exercised a kind of fatalistic logic: allowing certain parts of its civilization to be taken or destroyed or destroying those parts it knew it would be too dangerous to turn over to the Idirans. The Idirans experience this turn as simply capitulation on the Culture’s part, but it is, in shades of Yamamoto’s observation about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, more a case of a great giant having been awoken but not yet ready to act.

The ramifications of the Culture’s mobilization for war are a constant reminder throughout the series that probably deserves more serious treatment than I can give it here. In _The Player of Games_, Gurgeh is transported by the warship _Limiting Factor_ which has been mothballed for 800 years — though, given that we learn that the Culture has had its eye on the Azad Empire for hundreds of years, that may not be entirely true either. In fact, much of what happens in the Culture series is really about necessary deceptions. Later, in _Excession_, when an entire fleet of mothballed warships are allowed to be taken by yet another empire about which the Culture has some concerns, we learn that a good portion of the entire Excession event was contrived by a group of Minds in order to put the Affronters in their place.

As always, the exercise is performed by an individual who is somewhat at odds with the Culture himself. In _Consider Phlebas_, our shapeshifter is turned off by the Culture’s logic and willingness to think like the machines upon which it depends–though he later comes to realize he has more in common with the Culture than his Idiran employers. In _The Player of Games_, Gurgeh comes to relish, in many ways, the vividness of life under the constant threat of death, dismemberment, or defamation. In _Excession_, Byr Genar-Hofoen actually opts out of the Culture at the end, choosing to become, biologically, an Affronter. In _Use of Weapons_, we find that we have been in the company of a homicidal monster the entire time, a deeply sorry one, but nevertheless a monster.

I don’t think it’s always the case with Banks’ protagonists, but I think a more clear enumeration of them and their development would make for an interesting project. Any analysis of Banks would make for a fun project. Thanks you, Iain (M.) Banks for all the fun.

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