My experience with Iain M. Banks has been lukewarm. I liked but didn't love the first book in this series, Consider Phlebas, and I absolutely hated The Algebraist. I read The Player of Games because I am an artificial intelligence, post-scarcity junkie, and Banks is the kind of author who serves as my pusher.
The Player of Games more than makes up for any disappointment I felt over Consider Phlebas. In this return to the Culture universe, Banks manages to craft a character and a story that are compelling, both on an emotional and on a philosophical level. Most of the book takes place in a society outside the Culture, but make no mistake: this is an indictment, in some ways, of the sneakiness with which the Culture disarms possible threats. Banks employs a subtle, double-edged wit to portray simultaneously both the utopian aspects of this society and how it might look to the aliens it encounters.
But first, let's talk about the eponymous Jernah Morat Gurgeh. He plays games, almost any type of game, and he is probably the best player of games in the entire Culture. He's really rather an authority on it. Have achieved such a pinnacle, Gurgeh is bored out of his mind and spoiling for a challenge of some kind. After the additional push of some blackmail from a slightly crazy drone, Gurgeh allows himself to be enlisted by Contact, the division of the Culture that does exactly what the name implies, to play a game called Azad.
Azad is the cornerstone of the Empire of Azad, a civilization in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Contact isn't quite sure what to do with the Empire—in fact, for an imperial power structure to survive the advent of space travel is very rare, or so we are told. This one seems to have survived because of the game after which it is named; almost every Azadian plays Azad, and one's performance determines one's status, vocation, etc. Oh, and the Azadians have three sexes: male, female, and what our limited vocabulary forces us to call "apex". The apices are dominant, having selectively bred the males and females for strength of arms and docility, respectively.
Gurgeh gets parachuted into this game, and we are told that both sides expect him to lose rather quickly. Certainly, the Azadians have no desire to see Gurgeh advance into the higher levels of play: how would you feel if an alien showed up one day and beat you at the game around which your entire society revolves? Notably, the ultimate winner of Azad becomes the Emperor. When initially being briefed on the mission, Gurgeh asks the Contact representative if they expect him to become Emperor, and the representative essentially laughs. In that one respect, Contact tells Gurgeh the truth: they don't really expect him to become Emperor. That would be too simple. No, Contact is manipulating Gurgeh—and Banks is manipulating the reader—in a far deeper game.
Central to The Player of Games is the conundrum that faces most visions of utopia: if there is no suffering, no challenge to one's livelihood, wouldn't life be stagnant and pointless? The vast AI resources of the Culture mean that no human has to do any work unless he or she wants to; everyone essentially has unlimited free time. Disease and death are uncommon. There is no money, and aside from the occasional crime of passion, there is little enough crime—mostly because there are no formal laws. The Culture is axiomatically uninhibited, and this problematic: when everything is permitted and nothing is forbidden, how can one grow by pushing the boundaries?
Banks explores this question by juxtaposing Gurgeh against the Culture's emissary to the Empire of Azad, Shohobohaum Za. Za has not quite gone native, but he speaks about the Empire with a certain amount of admiration for the "rough-and-tumble" nature of life there. At first Gurgeh has no idea what Za means; he doesn't even really grasp the concept of an empire or ruling through coercion. He only begins to understand how different Azadian society is after he learns about it through the game (because, after all, the game is the society and the society is the game). Sometimes, influenced by the reaction of Gurgeh's companion drone, Flere Imsaho, I began to worry that Gurgeh was being seduced by the game Azad, that he was beginning to lust after power and victory a little too much. This comes to a head when Gurgeh becomes the subject of a Physical Challenge. Basically, if he loses he will be castrated; if he wins, his opponent, an apex, will have its reversible vagina and ovaries removed. Gurgeh could suffer the indignity, get extracted by his ship, and have the Culture's advanced medical technology restore his genitals. Yet he wants to win, wants to advance, even if it means causing, through his victory, his opponent to lose the ability to reproduce and become an outcast. Flere Imsaho takes Gurgeh on a little tour of the slums of the capital city and shows Gurgeh some scrambled channels that cater to the depraved sexual and violent needs of the empire's elite. All of this seems designed to remind us that even if some people, like Gurgeh, aren't creative enough to make their own fun in a post-scarcity society, it's infinitely better than the injustices visited upon the members of a society like the Empire of Azad.
It turns out that the situation isn't so simple. I keep saying "we are told" in this review, because Contact tells Gurgeh one thing (or several things) and then actually intends another. He is certainly not naive of this fact; the duplicity of Contact is notorious among the Culture, and he knows he is being manipulated. He's just not sure exactly how or why. It only becomes obvious during the endgame, when Gurgeh faces off against incumbent Emperor Nicosar, what Contact intends. And just as Flere Imsaho's horror tour is supposed to wake us to the inequities of the Empire, Contact's real goals remind us that the Culture is not always sunshine and rainbows. Because when the Culture decides your society is not worthy, they do not destroy you. They do not attack you. They dismantle your society from within and let your own people do the rest. It's a little chilling, especially when, at the very end, Banks reveals exactly how intricately Contact manipulated Gurgeh into accepting the mission and achieving their goals.
In this respect, The Player of Games continues the theme from Consider Phlebas, and Gurgeh even explicitly remarks upon it: in the Culture, individuals do not make much of a difference. Minds undertake the larger, galactic-level decisions, such as running Contact, because they vastly exceed humans in both intellectual capacity and longevity. Individual humans become, in one sense, pawns that the Minds manipulate in order to serve the larger needs of the Culture as a whole. What's so troubling is that it apparently works, because the Culture has been around for eleven thousand years. That kind of makes sense, because this impersonal, non-individualistic approach to decision-taking removes the ego that might otherwise corrupt a politician and his or her government. However, it goes against a lot of the thinking that pervades our contemporary society, and that makes the theme a bitter pill to swallow.
Note that I'm not actually advocating for (or against) the Culture as an ideal vision of what we should strive for as our future. It's unrealistic, because it assumes human beings are nicer than they probably are. In real life, I doubt we can ever eliminate that criminal element (even if we do arrive at a point where we no longer need laws). Any new technology is immediately going to be seized upon for two purposes: to make money legitimately, and to commit crimes. Our future will almost certainly be a lot grittier than the society depicted in the Culture series. Nevertheless, I am enamoured of the Culture, what it represents, and the interesting philosophical implications of a human/machine symbiosis on a political level.
So I enjoyed The Player of Games thematically, and I also liked the character of Jernau Morat Gurgeh. As a protagonist he might not be ideal, especially at first, because he whines about his dissatisfaction with being awesome. Yet that proves a useful starting point for Gurgeh to change and grow, mostly for the better. I really like that Banks enforces a certain level of ignorance when it comes to Gurgeh's knowledge of science and technology. A lot of science fiction novels focus on the characters who know exactly how all of their society's advanced technology works; some take it one step further and seem to assume that, in the future, everyone will understand quantum mechanics. Banks averts this:
The Limiting Factor was tearing through something it called ultraspace with increasing acceleration.… He didn't even know what ultraspace was. Was it the same as hyperspace? At least he had heard of that….
Even better, Gurgeh remembers this very close to the end of the book and asks Flere Imsaho what ultraspace is, but he doesn't really understand the explanation. Gurgeh is by no means unintelligent—he writes papers on game theory and has mastered in years a game that takes Azadians their entire lifetime to play well. So I enjoyed that Banks made a layperson the protagonist of a science-fiction novel and still managed to make the entire book work. It attests to a skill that seemed largely fallow in The Algebraist and did not quite shine enough in Consider Phlebas.
With The Player of Games, I no longer feel lukewarm toward Banks or his Culture series. I am officially hooked.