Iain or Ian?
In the sense that a game is a system with certain identifiable rules, everything is a game. I wish I knew more about game theory in general, because I think that it would allow a more fruitful interrogation of the Culture than just “oh yeah it’s a SF utopia that is pretty morally ambivalent”. The Player of Games, then, is an investigation of the Culture’s more interventionist tendencies, an intervention on another world being basically a game that is taken more seriously by the Culture than most societies normally would. It’s also an allegory. Gurgeh, on his mission to Azad, finds out that it is a hierarchical society that inflicts structural top-down violence, and to this end employs a money system, a religion, and various political, social and economic constraints. It is a tale of difference, then, between an anarchic post-scarcity society and an authoritarian capitalist society. But, it’s also a James Bond novel.
A James Bond novel with a social conscience, mind. Don’t worry, I’ll credit Mr Banks that. I might just have come to this conclusion through a kind of confirmation bias, though. I finished an Eng Lit degree recently, and the last few months of it were very much a stretch. After a good three-ish months thinking about Barthes and Derrida and how I could get them to make James Joyce dance the way I wanted him to, I was in the mood to read something a little bit more relaxing, and I’d never read them Bond novels before, despite having loved the films as a kid. I found them to be pretty loosely written thrillers served with (you know this anyway) a fairly hefty dollop of isms. Still, I’ve been enjoying them and will continue to enjoy them. But that’s not the point.
A highly capable man takes a job from a secretive organisation. He is selected for this job because, of the available people for this particular job, it is he and only he that has the requisite skill to play the game that forms the crux of the mission. Along the way there are thrills, chills and spills. And a daring escape at the end.
Yeah, it’s a little bit reductio ad absurdum, but the point stands. Of course Banks is aiming for something slightly different, and his scope is very much larger than Fleming’s. I’m still not entirely sure if the Culture would be a desirable state of affairs. This, of course, is built in. Banks is not dogmatic enough to create the ideal politically progressive future society and then not leave even a little leeway for dissent, or the thought that perhaps, this is not how things should be. So, this is what happens when machines become sentient and powerful enough to take in the sheer amount of possibilities that might allow you to solve reality as a game. Gurgeh is, of course, manipulated throughout the novel. He is another piece, but playing a game himself, a game that also seeks to model society, he is James Bond, and he is damn good. Having read Use of Weapons after this, I can’t help but feel, though, that while The Player of Games is more explicit in detailing how the culture plays its games and how it intervenes in other culture as if that was a game in and of itself, Use of Weapons demonstrates better the problems with the Culture’s interventionism.
I won’t lie to you, I don’t have much to say about The Player of Games, really. I noticed the parallels with a couple of the James Bond novels, and I enjoyed it both as a thriller and as an allegory. It hasn’t made me walk away resonating with the same kind of emotion Consider Phlebas did, but not too many novels have, anyway. One of the stronger images that remains with me is one of Gurgeh’s browsing the unencrypted television channels and finding them to be a peek at a kind of collective subconscious, a (semi) collective collation of all the fucking deep dark shit that goes on within hierarchical societies, laid out for your viewing pleasure. Banks didn’t necessarily predict what the internet would become, but he certainly seems to nod at the kind of function it has ended up serving, at least in a society as fucked up as ours. Because, of course, Gurgeh basically visits us. Guess who it doesn’t end well for?