The Player of Games is the book that almost always gets my recommendation as the best place to start with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Rereading it for this month’s book group selection, I stand by that assessment – which is no slight on its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, a thrilling and masterful work of space opera in its own right. But while Phlebas introduces the Culture from the viewpoint of an enemy, Player is the first book with a Culture protagonist – which makes it a good test for a new reader, because I suspect the way Banks’ hyperadvanced utopian civilization sees itself in this book is something you’re going to either love or hate.
Which brings up something that sank in for me even more on this reading than my first: The Player of Games is an extremely political book. I noticed it my first time through, of course; all the Culture books are political, and boldly so – looked at collectively, as Iain Banks’ Gesamtkunstwerk, they advance a powerful and complicated argument about organizing human societies and the choices we face in doing so. And maybe more nakedly than some of its successors, Player wears its politics on its sleeve, to an extent that I think a reader’s reaction to its underlying assumptions is going to depend a lot on how much you are in harmony with Banks’ – and the Culture’s – political philosophy.
Of course, this is true of all polemically tinged SF, almost none of which is likely to work as a convincing argument if you’re not already in sympathy with it. If I had to guess, I’d suspect that the number of readers who count themselves new-minted libertarians after finishing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably negligible, but readers with libertarian leanings fall deeply in love with it and find that it resonates with, and amplifies, their political beliefs. The same is true of the feel-good socialism of the Culture. And I’m not in any way arguing that this is a bad thing; I think it’s useful to have stories that prop up and reinforce the ideals of their intended audience, and I reject the notion that “sending a message” is a failure state of literature. It helps, of course, when the art holds up as art, as I’d argue the Culture novels do and then some. And I think it helps that Banks is more than willing to cop to his work as being, in part, a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the idea he hints at in his essay “A Few Notes on the Culture”1 – that being able to identify in our art what we long for is intimately bound up with our species’ capability to improve ourselves, our lives, and our civilizations – is a point well made.
(Spoilers for The Player of Games from here on out.)
But as transparent as its politics are, Player does some interesting things to mitigate its own polemics. One of these – and it’s something I’d forgotten since my first reading – is how difficult and unlikable its hero is through most of the story’s first arc. Jernau Gurgeh, the master game-player of the title,2 is aloof, arrogant, self-absorbed, and more than a little cold. He wants things he can’t have, seemingly only because he can’t have them; and when he’s granted his wish of gambling with something he can’t have easily replaced – his reputation, one of the only currencies the Culture still honors – and loses, he fails to appreciate the experience. It’s pointed out that he is in many ways an atypical Culture citizen (a common theme in the series, which often deals with marginalized or disaffected people at the fringes of the Culture), but unlike some other Banksian protagonists, he shows no signs of wanting to leave. He comes off as wanting to reap all the benefits of his miraculous post-scarcity civilization while still rising above its (few) limitations, which gives his restlessness and dissatisfaction a distinctly petulant edge. And when the trap his pride leads him to closes around him, it’s awfully hard to muster a lot of sympathy for him at all.
It isn’t until his journey to the Empire of Azad that Gurgeh starts to be really likely to win over the reader’s affections, first with the humility he experiences in learning Azad’s great game, and then later, when he’s a fish out of water in the Empire, with the genuine empathy he shows to the people around him – people he comes to see as human, who can’t bring themselves to see him as anything but alien and an outsider. And it’s here that the book continues playing its own interesting games with what the audience is shown, echoing Gurgeh’s mixture of naivete and excitement in encountering this new society. The Empire is hierarchical and harsh, set in sharp contrast to the pastoral and idyllic scenes on Chiark Orbital, but it’s also alluring and, to echo the words of the Culture’s own ambassador, a little sexy. We’re meant to be fascinated by it, or else what follows, as successive veils get pulled away about its true nature, wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Because The Player of Games is also, whatever else it is, a deeply reactive work, in conversation with generations of pulp space opera glorifying frontier spirit and the sexiness of decadent interstellar empires. Player responds to these long-standing tropes by showing what real colonialism looks like and the things real-world empires do. Admittedly, Banks is stacking the deck with the catalogue of horrors he hints at, revealing Azad to be a civilization that’s rotten and sadistic down to its core – but nothing he shows is outside of what actual expansionist kyriarchies get up to in our own world: the trophy-taking from conquered peoples, the state-sanctioned torture (and the way it gets conflated with entertainment), the carefully defended rape culture that results from sex and power being inextricably linked. This may all be shown through a science-fictional lens and with the volume turned up, but it’s also uncomfortably familiar.
And in the middle of this, the book makes another unexpected and brilliant move, which I’ve come to think of as the Sparrowhawk Maneuver, because it’s the same technique Ursula LeGuin uses in A Wizard of Earthsea: halfway through the narrative, the protagonist is revealed to be non-white.3 The first clue – and I was watching carefully for it on this reread – comes almost offhandedly, over 150 pages in, when it’s mentioned that the ambassador Za is considerably darker-skinned than the native Azadians but still lighter than Gurgeh. But the big impact doesn’t sink in until a hundred pages or so after that, during Gurgeh’s disguised nocturnal tour of the Capital, when his drone handler Flere-Imsaho warns him of the consequences of exposing himself and being mistaken for a local. “You’re the wrong color, Gurgeh,” it tells him flatly; in the eugenically purified Empire, dark-skinned throwbacks are supposed to be killed at birth. Suddenly the way the Azadians treat Gurgeh – their view of him as both childlike and hypersexual, their inability to pronounce his name – takes on startling new resonances.
It’s possible to make too much of this, needless to say. But it should be given the full weight of the import it does have, especially in a genre that has all too frequently given us worlds and futures every bit as homogenous and whitewashed as the Empire of Azad.4 There’s enough else going on that it doesn’t make The Player of Games a book “about” race, but bringing it into the story is a significant move.5 It’s hanging there, along with the conversations about sex and power and privilege Gurgeh has prior to the game’s final phase, at the novel’s climax when the Emperor accuses his opponent of having “perverted” the most sacred institution of his civilization. And it’s also in play behind Gurgeh’s response, the refutation of the Empire – of all empires – that could stand as the thesis statement of the Culture series: “No, life is not fair…. It’s something we can try to make it, though.”
Of course, all of this is complicated by the final revelations, which also serve as further tempering of the political ideas the book and its author are nonetheless very sincere about: Gurgeh learns that he himself has been played by the Culture (though not even the full extent of that – a last look behind the curtain that’s reserved for the audience alone), turned into a real weapon in a battle he thought was only abstract. It opens up questions about means and ends, and the just use of power and knowledge, that the series will continue to untangle without ever quite answering for many books to come. But for all that, the ambiguity is part of what makes The Player of Games as satisfying as it is (and more so than if it had merely been a soapbox for the awesomeness of socialist transhumanism). And that’s part of what makes it a fine introduction to the Culture, a universe that – for the reader who’s up for unabashedly leftist SF leavened with unresolved moral dilemmas – can prove to be a magnificently wide and rich playground.
1 A piece that opens up, inexplicably enough, with Banks at pains to make the disclaimer that his invented universe is, in fact, invented. Possibly, I suppose, for the same reasons that every White Wolf RPG book that came out in the ’90s had an exasperated-sounding sidebar near the introduction to the effect that you are not a real vampire and this is just a game. Fandom’s whackaloon contingent really is a very small minority, with a dispoportionate ability to make life harder for the rest of us.
2 Well, nominally. A number of the characters are revealed to be more crafty and subtle game-players than they appear at first, including Flere-Imsaho, Shohobohaum Za, and Emperor Nicosar. And, of course, one of the big reveals is that the Culture itself may be the most masterful and ruthless player of games, willing to use both friend and enemy as pawns in a long and calculating strategem.
3 Somewhat ambiguously so, of course, in the context of the multi-species Culture, whose definition of “human” is exceedingly generous. I had a brief online conversation once with someone who asserted that, because Gurgeh is actually an alien, we shouldn’t think of what the book addresses in terms of “race” – an argument that doesn’t hold a lot of water, considering the way it plays into the story. In retrospect, I have to wonder if my fellow reader was simply anxious to keep his SF free of Issues, to which I can only say that Banks is nine kinds of the wrong damn author if that’s what you’re after.
4 It’s a conversation, alas, we’re still having. To get a sense of how much so, and how difficult it still is, feed “science fiction racefail” into the Google machine and see what happens.
5 And the Sparrowhawk Maneuver can be an especially effective way of introducing it; it sidesteps the (unfortunately, all too real) possibility of putting a reader of privilege at a distance from the text at the outset. By the time the penny drops, they’ve already spent half the book behind the protagonist’s eyes and have probably become as identified with the hero as they’re going to get. A bit of an underhanded trick, maybe, but it works.