A rudderless prodigy enters a bizarre tournament in a distant, barbaric space empire in Iain Banks’s ‘The Player of Games’

July 17, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 17, 2019

Iain Banks’s 1987’s novel Consider Phlebas chronicled a shape-shifting secret agent undertaking a dangerous secret mission on behalf of the Idirans, a species of giant three-legged lizards locked in a bloody galactic struggle with a foe called the Culture. The following year, the British author published the second entry in what became the 11-volume Culture series, a book called The Player of Games.

The two narratives are wildly different. Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, is a grim mercenary who passionately believes that his Idiran patrons deserve to defeat the Culture. Gurgeh, the main character in the sequel, is a highly refined game-player. As accomplished as he is jaded, Gurgeh evidently wanders ambivalently from one academic posting to another. Throughout his arc, Horza is at war with at least half the galaxy and prepared to knife most of the other half in the back at a moment’s notice. By contrast, at the start of his story, Gurgeh is practically master of all he surveys; like a mountaineer who’s scaled every noteworthy peak, he can no longer find anything to excite him.

As Jewish grandmothers might say, we should all have such problems. Seven centuries after Gurgeh’s civilization won the Idiran war, the Culture evidently sprawls across a major chunk of the galaxy. Thanks to genetic engineering (“genofixing”), its human inhabitants are capable of internally manufacturing and self-dosing on their own mood- and mind-altering substances. Sex changes are not just easily implemented but almost de rigueur (“normally people bore one [child] and fathered one”).

Crime, illness and physical deformity are all but extinct within the Culture. Grapefruit-sized floating drones are capable of paralyzing a man or reading his thoughts; their existence spans millennia. Human, robot and artificially intelligent computers and starships live together in apparent peace. Picture a utopian society such as Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, which appears to have abolished both money and poverty, and you begin to get a sense of the nature of this society.

‘The Player of Games’ by Iain M. Banks.

Gurgeh’s disaffection with paradise comes to an end, or at least changes in nature, after a drone manipulates Gurgeh into accepting the machine’s illicit assistance in a game he’s playing against a talented young opponent. This sets off a chain of events that results in the protagonist accepting an exotic assignment. Gurgeh agrees to take a two-year journey to an isolated and relatively primitive star empire and play the game of Azad in a grand tournament that will shape the imperium’s direction for years to come.

As a different drone explains:

“The game of Azad is used not so much to determine which person will rule, but which tendency within the empire’s ruling class will have the upper hand, which branch of economic theory will be followed, which creeds will be recognized within the religious apparat, and which political policies will be followed. The game is also used as an exam for both entry into and promotion within the empire’s religious, educational, civil administrational, judicial and military establishments. 

“The idea, you see, is that Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.” 

“But…” Gurgeh looked at the drone beside him, and seemed to feel the presence of [the image of] the planet before them as an almost physical force, something he felt drawn to, pulled toward, “is that true?” 

The planet disappeared and they were back looking at the vast game-board again. The holo was in motion now, though silently, and he could see the alien people moving around, shifting pieces and standing around the edges of the board. 

“It doesn’t have to be totally true,” the drone said, “but cause and effect are not perfect polarized here; the set-up assumes that the game and life are the same thing, and such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing that, they make it so. It becomes true; it is willed into actuality. Anyway; they can’t be too far wrong, or the empire would not exist at all. It is by definition a volatile and unstable system; Azad — the game — would appear to be the force that holds it together.” 

“Wait a moment now,” Gurgeh said… “[Y]ou wouldn’t be expecting me to go out there and become emperor or anything, would you?” 

For the first time, the drone showed an aura, flashing briefly red. There was a laugh in its voice, too. “I wouldn’t expect you’d get very far trying that…… The idea of anybody from outside coming in and trying to take the empire over would fill them with horror. If you decide you want to go, and if you are able to learn the game sufficiently well during the voyage, then there might be a chance, we think, going on your past performance as a game-player, of you qualifying as a clerk in the civil service, or as an army lieutenant. Don’t forget; these people are surrounded by this game from birth. They have anti-agatic [anti-aging] drugs, and the best players are about twice your own age. Even they, of course, are still learning…” 

Gurgeh agrees to undertake this quixotic challenge, but it entails far more than he ever could have anticipated. The emperor oversees an oppressive and devious society. (Like the game, it is also called Azad.) The title character becomes obsessed with the contest. By the time things come to a head, Banks leaves the reader with no clear hero: The empire’s hands are dirty, but Gurgeh becomes just as ruthless in his efforts to win the tournament.

Banks began his writing career the very year that the syndicated American television series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous launched a two-decade run, and The Player of Games serves as a biting commentary on Western culture in the 1980s. This was a decade in which America’s president, the former actor Ronald Reagan, and Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, seemingly prioritized the accumulation of capital above all else. The Culture isn’t as outwardly vulgar as the conspicuous consumption so enthusiastically promoted by Robin Leach, the host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or Donald Trump, ersatz real-estate magnate cum “reality TV” host cum president. And yet Gurgeh’s life, despite his intelligence, is as hollow and unmoored from morality as that led by any avatar of ’80s-era neo-aristocracy.

When all was said and done, I found the themes suggested by The Player of Games to be more compelling than the story or characters. Perhaps what intrigued me most of all were the possibilities raised by the story. In his first two Culture novels, Banks established an expansive, varied environment capable of hosting a diverse array of stories. I don’t know if the author ever established a grand vision for his universe, but I’m curious about the direction he took with the series. While I didn’t love The Player of Games, I enjoyed it, and I intend to read more volumes in the sequence.

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