“What will you do if you win the jackpot in a lottery or casino game?” This is a common enough question that I hear asked on a semi-regular basis. The answers to it are often revealing of a person’s aspirations and desires. However, unless one has a few screws loose, or has actually won a sizable jackpot, the list is illusory: a wish-list rather than something real. And in a way, the fact that it’s an illusory list is what makes it fun: if one could actually set out and do everything one ever wanted to do in life, and buy everything one ever wanted, then life, as a whole, would quickly lose its shine. In short, one would be facing, in the most horrific sense of the world, complete and utter boredom.
In the world of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, set in a far distant, space-faring future, humanity has actually reached that point. Managed carefully by super-intelligent computers and humans called Minds, the people of the Culture want for absolutely nothing at all. The Culture provides for every possible want or need those under its aegis could dream of, no matter how strange. All one has to do is conceive of a desire, and find out how to fulfill it – the Culture will always come through, one way or another.
But what if one has reached the very limits of one’s desires? What if one has everything, and can no longer want more? What does one do when, finally, one still wants something, but cannot imagine what it could possibly be because one already has everything?
This is the dilemma facing Gurgeh, the protagonist of The Player of Games, Banks’ second Culture novel. He is the “player” in the title – the best in the entire Culture. There are very few games that he has not heard of, played, and subsequently mastered – and the general consensus is that if Gurgeh cannot win at a particular game, then perhaps the game was not meant to be “won” at all.
And yet, at the beginning of the novel, Gurgeh is tired of this very fact. He moves through life and amongst his friends in a half-numbed state, mostly because he is bored out of his mind. He has run out of things to challenge him, and as a result is actually considering retirement, even though the very idea fills him with a vague sense of dread. Games – the challenge, the thrill of winning – are his life, and yet he has run out of truly challenging ones to play.
On the suggestion of one of his friends, Gurgeh calls Contact, a special division within the Culture tasked with the responsibility of contacting and dealing with other alien cultures, who may, hopefully, wish to join the Culture itself. The friend suggests that Gurgeh might find what he is seeking by going on a mission for Contact, since the agency generally works outside of the Culture itself, and thus provides a life of greater risks and challenges.
Gurgeh does indeed go on a mission for Contact, one that seems especially suited to his skills and inclinations. He is sent to a world called Ea, where he is tasked with playing a game – except it is a game so rich and complex that it is viewed as a perfect simulation of life itself. And since it is the perfect simulation of life, the inhabitants of Ea have come to use it as a means of determining who rules – and shapes – their entire society. The Game is, quite literally, everything.
One of the greatest pleasures I get when reading sci-fi is recognizing bits and pieces of my own reality – or commentary on that reality – in this supposedly distant universe. While this is obvious when it comes to characters, I tend to focus a bit more on the fictional universe itself. For instance, the culture of Ea has certain cultural elements which I despise: a strict caste system based on gender and wealth, a corrupt military government, racism, and exploitation of the poor. Seen through Gurgeh’s Culture-influenced eyes, and my twenty-first century, feminist, postcolonial gaze, Ea is the embodiment of everything that is wrong and terrible about my reality.
And yet, as the story progresses, and as Gurgeh continues to play the Game, it becomes clear that maybe the Culture – and, hence, the reader’s – judgments about Ea’s culture might not be so cut-and -dry. It is in many ways abhorrent, for the reasons previously mentioned, and yet it gives something that the Culture cannot: purpose. At the beginning of the novel, Gurgeh is adrift in life, with nothing to fight for, nothing to work towards, because the Culture provides anything and everything anyone could possibly need or want. He finds all of this in an alien society, one which he is prejudiced against initially, but which he gradually comes to respect. Unfortunately, just when he reaches this realization it is far too late, and he fulfills, albeit unintentionally, the true role that Contact intended for him: that of destroyer, nipping this fledgling society in the bud before it becomes strong enough to challenge the Culture itself.
It is in the latter part of the novel – in the epilogue, particularly – that the reader sees the Culture’s true face. The seemingly perfect society it has created is not maintained through goodwill and diplomacy; it is maintained through Machiavellian manipulation of its own citizens and the societies it encounters. If a society does not accept the Culture, it is destroyed – not with violence, but by shattering that society’s very identity. That is what Gurgeh does: when he, as a representative of the Culture, wins the Game, he breaks Ea’s culture at its very core.
This idea of winning a war (for the culture clash depicted in The Player of Games is certainly a war) by crushing the heart of another society’s culture is both fascinating and disturbing. On one hand, it is fascinating because it is an interesting way to wage war: instead of killing as many of the opposition’s supporters as possible, one simply goes to the heart of what makes the other side who they are, and either obliterate it, or, preferably, get them to embrace one’s own culture, at the expense of their own. This method is not the easiest way to wage a war, or even to win one, but it is the least ethically distasteful, and hence has the benefit of support that a conventional war does not always have.
And yet this is a horrific way to win a war, not for reasons of bloodshed or mass carnage on a battlefield, but for the simple fact that it erases an entire culture: its history, its language, its beliefs and philosophies. Even worse, it is possible for the opposition to destroy itself willingly, to turn its back on everything that makes it what it is, and replace it with something else. A conventional war tends to leave both cultures intact; the kind of war espoused by the Culture leaves everything a part of the Culture.
During his visit to the Philippines, writer Junot Diaz claimed that genre fiction was an excellent – sometimes the only – way to explore issues that might be too difficult or too controversial to explore in conventional fiction. If that is the case, then The Player of Games explores some very intriguing, and uncomfortable, ideas. Is it possible to erase an entire culture, an entire civilization, without ever once firing a bullet? More importantly, is it happening to us today? So much has been said about the benefits of globalization, but does anyone really, truly understand its consequences?
All in all, The Player of Games is a significant improvement over the last novel, Consider Phlebas, improving on the aspects I thought were rather weak in the latter. The reader finally gets a glimpse at how the Culture really functions, which was not made very clear in the first novel. The plot is more coherent in The Player of Games, without any of the running around in Consider Phlebas. Finally, the portrayal of the Culture in The Player of Games is no longer as one-dimensional as it was in the first novel. The inner workings of the Culture might not be revealed in their entirety, but whatever is shown is enough for the reader to know that not all is as perfect as it seems on the surface.
The Player of Games is, I think, a definite improvement over the first novel in the series, and since the two books are only very loosely related, the reader can skip right over Consider Phlebas and go straight to this one. In fact, I would recommend it: The Player of Games makes a far better introduction to Banks’ series than Consider Phlebas.