Re-reading the Culture: The Player of Games
Again, it’s been a super long time since I read this. I had a vague memory of one of the twists, but basically it was like reading it for the first time. And it’s astonishing.
Gurgeh is a games player. He lives in the Culture, so all of his basic needs are taken care of; he has no concern for shelter, food, medical treatment, or anything else at all. There Culture isn’t a monetary society, so he can be or do anything at all. And what Gurgeh does is play games. All and any games. And he is one of the greatest games players the Culture has ever known. Probably not the greatest at any one game – but that’s because he’s good at all of them.
So eventually, Special Circumstances comes knocking. Contact are the group responsible for dealing with interactions with new alien species that the Culture comes across, and SC are… well, they’re basically the secret services branch. Because what the Culture doesn’t really like to advertise, or even admit to themselves, is that they are inveterate meddlers. They believe they have the right way of doing things, and that places like the Empire of Azad who are still that – an empire, although multi-planet – are desperately backward. SC recruit who they need, and Gurgeh is needed because the Empire of Azad is functionally ruled through the playing of a game that’s so intrinsic to the society that it gives it its name. Gurgeh has two years – the travel time to reach Azad – to learn how to play…
I’m pretty sure when I first read the Culture novels that I basically accepted the Culture as what they would say about themselves; helping other societies to better themselves, which may sometimes require breaking eggs for omelettes, etc. I wasn’t quite so naive that I didn’t see it as problematic, but I think I assumed I was meant to be entirely on the Culture’s side. I have, happily, become a more nuanced reader since then. As a post-scarcity society where anything and everything is available, accessible, and largely permissible, living in the Culture is indeed a wonderful thing. The problem comes when it assumes that everyone else must want, and need, to be like them. When you’re inside that society, of course this makes sense! Why would you not want people to be able to express themselves as fully as possible? And when the realities of Azad society are shown, aren’t there indeed issues that should and could be dealt with? Of course! … and yet… colonialism, imperialism, external imposition of outsider norms…
The Player of Games is fantastic. Banks’ exploration of societies and politics and individual mentalities, the influence of context on behaviour, the extreme but logical consequence of actions: they’re all nuanced and precise. And devastating. It’s never particularly easy to read a Banks novel. Worth it, though.
Re-reading the Culture: Use of Weapons
I read read a lot of Iain M Banks’ novels, but apparently the only ones I’ve properly reviewed here is Player of Games and Surface Detail. So that’s a bit weird; maybe I always felt like I didn’t have the words for it. I must have mentioned them on Galactic Suburbia, so maybe that got it out of my system.
My review for Player tells me that I read my first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, while visiting the UK for the first time over Christmas 2006. So that’s a mighty long time ago, now, but I still remember the bit from Phlebas that freaked me out quite considerably and made me reluctant to trust Banks at all. Clearly I got over that, but I’m honestly reluctant to go back and read it because of those couple of pages. I will, at some point… because I think I might do a complete re-read of the Culture. Not in any order, since that’s one of the great advantages of these novels – they’re all standalone, like Reed’s Great Ship series. It does amuse me that the books got fatter and fatter over time, so I might pick based on what other reading deadlines I might have.
So! Use of Weapons. I love it. I love the structure, although it also drives me completely wild trying to figure out WHEN the different chapters for together, not to mention which of the characters in the various timelines are actually the same people. I’m always fascinated by how people write non-linear stories: did Banks write two stories and then cut and paste the various chapters? Did they just come out in this order, and he always knew what Zakalwe was up to? Who knows! And in the first few chapters, the reader has basically no idea what’s going on and or how any of it will fit together. But there’s something about Banks’ writing – something in his style, in his easy-to-read and yet challenging prose, that just… makes you keep reading.
One of the things I keep realising about Banks is how easily he sucks you in – look! this society is great; look! these political ideas are straightforward; look! the drone will always make sensible decisions – and then whoosh the carpet is pulled out from under your feet and you’re left unbalanced, bewildered, not really sure what’s going on except realising that things have changed just enough that the world is unmoored. And still you keep reading.
We see very little of the Culture itself, in this relatively early novel. We learn that they have a penchant for interfering in other people’s business; that they take their ideas of morality very seriously, but also that they’re ruthless in ‘the needs of the many’ or ‘the greatest good’; and, of course, that their technology is stupendous: the machine intelligence that is Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the ships that traverse phenomenal distances, and so on.
For all of that, this is still a very human story. Revenge, justice, forgiveness, family, shame – these are the driving factors. It’s horrific, and brutal; it’s also compassionate, in a weird way. Is it hopeful because of its suggestion that tech and galaxy-spanning empires will not change humanity all that much? I’m really not sure.