With The Player of Games, Banks’s series immediately becomes the legend of science fiction that it is. Simply put, it’s one of the most compelling premises in science fiction, on par with A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: a post-scarcity utopia that conducts warfare via a board game.
Central to the idea of the Culture, and indeed to any self-respecting utopia is an abundance of leisure time. Or, put more succinctly, it’s inherently about play. The game, meanwhile, is naturally about war – a model of combat. The first time we looked at the Culture it was from the unusual perspective of them at war in the traditional sense. Now, in a novel explicitly set centuries after that, we get a novel in which they overthrow the Empire of Azad, which is bad for more or less the exact same reasons the Idirans were, except they do it playfully, on their own terms.
The key element in making this work is the protagonist, Jernau Gergeh, the eponymous gameplayer afflicted by that most beautiful of character motivations, boredom. He has played all the good games there are and mastered them all; only a handful of people in the world have any chance at beating him, and only in a handful of games at that. He is, simply put, a damn fine character. This is not because he is long on interiority or complexity; in fact he’s a tremendously simple and predictable character – an excuse for competence porn wrapped in a motivation that’s as sympathetic as it is disreputable. But he’s a tremendously effective lens for this sort of reenactment of the Culture/Idrian war, and fun to spend time with.
Another way of putting this is that Banks has efficiently figured out how to write a novel that’s mostly the good bits of Consider Phlebas, which is to say the more philosophical monologues, while leaving behind most of the pulp structuring that made that book drag in numerous places. For huge swaths of its page-count, The Player of Games is about people playing board games. Moreover, playing fictional board games that don’t actually have their rules explained on any level. And it’s scintillating.
It’s probably worth looking at how this improbable thing happens. Let’s take a representative passage from early in the book, when Gurgeh plays a game called Stricken against a young prodigy who turns out to be unexpectedly good. This is, notably, not from the part of the book where games have been built up to vehicles capable of representing fundamental cultural values – it just represents how Banks opts to write about fictional games.
“She made the right guesses about Gurgeh’s pieces, capturing several strong beads in weak disguises; she anticipated moves he’d sealed in the Foretell shells; and she ignored the tempting traps and feints he set up.
Somehow he struggled on, coming up with desperate, improvised defences against each attack, but it was all too seat-of-the-pants, too extemporary and tactical. He wasn’t being allowed to develop his pieces or plan a strategy. He was responding, following, replying.
He preferred to have the initiative.
It was some time before he realized just how audacious the girl was being. She was going for a Full Web; the simultaneous capture of every remaining point in the game-space. She wasn’t just trying to win, she was trying to pull off a coup which only a handful of the game’s greatest players had ever accomplished, and which nobody in the Culture – to Gurgeh’s knowledge – had yet achieved. Gurgeh could hardly believe it, but it was what she was doing. She was sapping pieces but not obliterating them, then falling back; she was striking out through his own avenues of weakness, then holding there. She was inviting him to come back, of course, giving him a better chance of winning, and indeed of achieving the same momentous result, though with far less hope of doing so. But the self-confidence of it! The experience and even arrogance such a course implied!”
And then a few paragraphs later:
The game went on. People came and went around him. The web held all his fortune; the little spheres, holding their secret treasures and threats, became like discrete parcels of life and death, single points of probability which could be guessed at but never known until they were challenged, opened, looked at. All reality seemed to hinge on those infinitesimal bundles of meaning.
He no longer knew what body-made drugs washed through him, nor could he guess what the girl was using. He had lost all sense of self and time.
The game drifted for a few moves, as they both lost concentration, then came alive again. He became aware, very slowly, very gradually, that he held some impossibly complex model of the contest in his head, unknowably dense, multifariously planed.
He looked at that model, twisted it.
The game changed.
He saw a way to win. The Full Web remained a possibility. His, now. It all depended. Another twist. Yes; he would win. Almost certainly. But that was no longer enough. The Full Web beckoned, tantalisingly, seductively, entrancingly…
What can we conclude from this? The first thing to note is the way in which Banks describes the game in terms of tactics/strategy instead of mechanics. It’s clear that the game involves some system of hidden pieces (the board is described as “a three-dimensional web stretched inside a metre cube” in which “hollow globes and coloured beads” are suspended, the latter concealed in the former), but past that there is no real indication of the game’s rules. Indeed, Banks describes all of the games throughout the book with a minimum of attention to the notion of rules, which is already an interesting decision in the larger context of the quasi-anarchist nature of the Culture. Instead it’s phrases like “sapping pieces but not obliterating them, then falling back” or “desperate, improvised defences against each attack, but it was all too seat-of-the-pants, too extemporary and tactical.” So games are less about rules than about what their players do in the course of playing them.
But there’s something even more important than the actions that make up a game. The key moment in the passage comes in the form of manipulating a mental model of the game – a model that is explicitly lacking in detail, or, rather, is so excessive in its detail that it can only be looked at from a distance, as an overview. This is clearly unrelated to the actions Gurgeh takes in playing the game, although it’s certainly related to the sense of tactics and strategy that are implicit in Banks’s descriptions. But there’s more to it – something founded in the way in which games serve as models and metaphors for larger concerns.
This is, obviously, central to the book, both on a thematic level, whereby games serve as a metonym for war. And this is, of course, an easy connection to draw, dating back to the use of the term “the Great Game” to describe the interplay of British and Russian interests in Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s one rooted in a confluence of language – “strategy” and “tactics” being the most obvious one. And it’s one that’s just plain rooted in the iconography of games, countless numbers of which are overtly presented as clashes of armies.
But there’s a larger level to it as indicated by Azad, which is not just the name of the empire but of a game played within the empire that is used not only to determine the empire but every aspect of the government – “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 parties will be followed” along with serving as entry exams to various branches of government. The word “Azad,” we are told, means “machine” or “system,” which further emphasizes the underlying comparison, while also subtly strengthening Banks’s larger stylistic point by defining Azad in terms of its rules.
Unsurprisingly when Gurgeh plays Azad in what is eventually revealed to be a carefully designed effort to destabilize and destroy the empire his play is described in exactly these sorts of terms, with Nicosar, the Emperor described as having “set up his whole side of the game as an Empire, the very image of Azad,” while Gurgeh “played as the Culture” having set up his pieces as “a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful.” And once Gurgeh realizes this consciously he finally beats Nicosar by doubling down on it:
He gradually remodelled his whole game-plan to reflect the ethos of the Culture militant, trashing and abandoning whole areas of the board where the switch would not work, pulling back and regrouping and restructuring where it would; sacrificing where necessary, razing and scorching the ground where he had to. He didn’t try to mimic Nicosar’s crude but devastating attack-escape, return-invade strategy, but made his positions and his pieces in the image of a power that could eventually cope with such bludgeoning, if not now, then later, when it was ready.
This is, notably, almost exactly the description Banks gives at the end of Consider Phlebas of how the Culture defeats the Idrians, beginning by “falling back from the rapidly expanding Idrian sphere” as it converts its economy to war production, then adopting a strategy of extreme mobilization, shifting its population around the galaxy so that the Idrians are forced to overextend themselves.
But for all that Banks builds up this extended idea of games as a form of ideological expression, he also massively, deliberately, and fascinatingly undermines it with the ending, in which it is revealed to Gurgeh that, contrary to what he’d been told, the Culture was always dead certain he’d be able to beat anyone at Azad with just two years or so of training. As it’s explained to him, “you’ve spent all your life learning games; there can’t be a rule, move, concept or idea in Azad you haven’t encountered ten times before in other games.” Indeed, this is the point of Azad and of Gurgeh’s ludological assault on the empire: that the game, for all its complexity, is fundamentally flawed as a model of civilization, leading inexorably to the brutal oppression and degradation that Banks describes as existing within Azad.
And though this is something of an final twist, it’s also well set up by the rest of the book, where Gurgeh’s exposure to and mastery of Azad begins to twist him into something considerably more unpleasant. The book spends a lot of time on the way in which Gurgeh is fascinated by the horrors of the empire, watching their torture porn obsessively. On the one hand this is suggested to be a form of amping himself up – a constant reminder of what he’s fighting for. But it’s also presented as a sort of corruption, particularly towards the end where it all gets a bit Sapir-Whorff in terms of what language Gurgeh opts to speak in. The conclusion is emphatic – there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea of using a game to model the world.
And yet in the very exchange where the ultimate facility of Azad is revealed to Gurgeh the drone explaining it to him talks about the development of the “use Gurgeh to discredit Azad” strategy, remarking, “my respect for those great Minds which use the likes of you and me like game-pieces increases all the time.” Which is to say that for all the flaws of Azad the Culture, or at least Special Circumstances, falls into the same basic traps.
But this is, of course, baked into the very premise of the Culture, defined as they are by their infinite capacity for leisure. It’s the problem at the heart of the moral complexity their utopia represents. And that, in the end, is the point of The Player of Games: it is a novel with a breathtakingly good central metaphor and a wickedly clever approach to writing about it that quietly and without fanfare reveals its fundamental inadequacy, and calls that reveal, quite rightly, the climax.