Wednesday, October 19, 2011

426. The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

History: First published in 1988, this book written under Iain M. Banks. He writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, and science fiction as Iain M. Banks, including the initial of his adopted middle name Menzies. In 2008, The Times named Banks in their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
Plot: Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a famously skilful player of board games and other similar contests, lives on Chiark Orbital, and is bored with his successful life. The Culture's Special Circumstances inquires about his willingness to participate in a long journey, though won't explain further unless Gurgeh agrees to participate. While he is considering this offer, one of his drone friends, Mawhrin-Skel, which had been ejected from Special Circumstances due to its unstable personality, convinces him to cheat in one of his matches in an attempt to win in an unprecedented perfect fashion. The attempt fails, but Mawhrin-Skel uses his recording of the event to blackmail Gurgeh into accepting the offer and insisting that Mawhrin-Skel be admitted back into Special Circumstances as well.
Gurgeh spends the next two years travelling to the Empire of Azad in the Small Magellanic Cloud, where a complex game (also named Azad) is used to determine social rank and political status. The game itself is sufficiently subtle and complex that a player's tactics reflect his own political and philosophical outlook. By the time he arrives, he has grasped the game but is unsure how he will measure up against opponents who have been studying it for their entire lives.
Azad is a game played in the Empire of Azad. In the language of the fictional Empire, the word "Azad" translates to mean "machine" or "system", but is applied to any complex entities such as animals, plants or artificial machines.
Although the actual rules are not given in the book, the game is primarily tactical and played on three-dimensional boards of various shapes and sizes. Typically the boards are large enough for players to walk around inside them to move or interact with their pieces. The number of players differs from game to game and also influences the tactics, as players can choose to cooperate or compete with one another. As well as skill and tactics, random events may influence gameplay (often as card or other games of chance), and sometimes may change the outcome critically.
The game consists of a number of minor games, such as card games and elemental die matching, which allow the players to build up their forces for use on the game's three giant boards (in order; the Board of Origin, the Board of Form, and finally the Board of Becoming) and a number of minor boards.
The game uses a variety of pieces to represent a player's units (military, resource or even philosophical premises). Some of the pieces are genetically engineered constructs, which may change form during the game according to their use and environment. These respond to their handling by a player and appear difficult to understand — at one point in the book Gurgeh is encouraged to sleep while holding some of the more important pieces so he can better understand them in play.
In the empire, the game is the main determinant of one's social status. The game is played in a tournament every "Great Year" (roughly every six Culture years), initially consisting of some 12,000 players in the main series. Through the various rounds, these are all whittled down until the final game, the victor of which becomes emperor. Players knocked out from the main series may take part in further games to determine their careers. The complexity of the game aims to represent reality to such a degree that a player's own political and philosophical outlook can be expressed in play (the idea being that rival ideologies are essentially "tested" in the game before the winners can apply them in reality). In point of fact, as the protagonist discovers, the game embodies the incumbent preferences of the social elite, reinforcing and reiterating the pre-existing gender and caste inclinations of the empire, putting the lie to the "fairness" which is generally perceived to govern the outcome of the tournament and thus the shape of Azadian society.
In the novel, the protagonist ultimately finds that his (successful) tactics reflect the values of his own civilization, The Culture, though he also recognises that his own thought and behaviour have been markedly influenced by the manner in which he has been forced to compete. In a private audience with the emperor on the penultimate eve of the tournament, when confronted with the seeming absurdity of the possibility that a novice with a mere two years of experience at the game could systematically defeat players' whose whole lives were devoted to its mastery, the protagonist comes to understand that his proficiency is merely a reflection of his experience with strategic games of all sorts. Given that, the Culture had intended all along to use him to discredit the brutality of the Azadian system by dismantling the illusion of the uniqueness of the fidelity of the game's representation of social reality.
Gurgeh lands on the Empire's home planet of Eä, accompanied by another drone, Flere-Imsaho. As a Culture citizen, he naturally plays with a style markedly different from his opponents, many of whom stack the odds against him one way or another, such as forming backroom agreements to cooperate against him (which is allowed by the game's rules). As he advances through the tournament he is matched against increasingly powerful Azad politicians, and ultimately the Emperor himself in the final round. Faced with defeat, the Emperor attempts to kill Gurgeh, but is himself killed by a shot from his own weapon, deflected by Flere-Imsaho (who later refuses to tell Gurgeh if it was coincidental).
Flere-Imsaho reveals that Gurgeh's participation was part of a Culture plot to overthrow the corrupt and savage Empire from within, and that he, the player, was in fact a pawn in a much larger game. Although Gurgeh never discovers the whole truth, it is ultimately revealed to the reader that Flere-Imsaho was the same drone as Mawhrin-Skel, who was also the narrator of the novel itself.
Review: The Culture is a galaxy-wide civilization, so far advanced that it has solved most problems that afflict humanity. The great concerns of our time are all resolved. No longer planet-bound, no longer concerned with meeting needs; the Culture is a utopian, decadent paradise. A mix of wildly evolved humans and super-intelligent machines, including intelligent spaceships, it is very nearly all-powerful and omniscient.
But there are still parts of the galaxy, or at least parts of the Magellanic Clouds, where the Culture has not yet gained influence. Those parts of the Galaxy are the business of Contact, the part of the very loose government of the Culture that deals with alien civilizations. And in the difficult cases, Special Circumstances steps in to solve the problem. "Special Circumstances," like most names in Banks' books, is a euphemism: "Special Circumstances" isn't bound by the legal, moral or cultural constraints that bind the rest of the Culture.
Gurgeh, the protagonist, is recruited, perhaps blackmailed, by Special Circumstances to help Contact with an awkwardly difficult alien culture. The Azadians present a space-faring civilization, less advanced than the Culture but still powerful, whose entire ethos is based on The Game. Social position, military rank, governmental power, wealth; all of Azad is based on one's performance in The Game. Gurgeh is one of the Culture's best games players. Special Circumstances sends Gurgeh to Azad to compete in The Game.
At one level, Banks is writing about the effect of an advanced culture on a less advanced one. At another, he is having fun with a traditional space opera culture that is in contact with his more subtle and sophisticated one. At another, he is poking fun at traditional SF authors. Because as the story progresses, the underbelly of Azad is revealed to be disgusting and horrific; in some ways, the Culture's efforts to undermine Azad are morally justified.
But most of what Contact tells Gurgeh is a lie. He himself is an unknowing pawn in another game. When is it right to cheat? What is cheating? As ever, Banks asks the questions but doesn't really answer them, making you ask yourself instead, "Am I asking the right question?"
Banks' Culture is ironic and self-mocking. The intelligent ship that takes Gurgeh to Azad is the size of an asteroid but calls itself "Little Rascal." The equally vast ship that takes him back is named "So Much for Subtlety." But the Culture is deadly, too, as evidenced in _Consider Phlebas_, set a few hundred years earlier than _Player of Games_. The Culture is peaceful and principled; that doesn't mean non-violent or honest.
Opening Line: “This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game.”
Closing Line: “Would I lie to you? As ever, Mawhrin-Skel.”
Quotes: “All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elefant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games.”
Rating: Okay, not fascinating.

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