Saturday, March 17, 2012

100 Books #23 - Iain M. Banks' THE PLAYER OF GAMES



I never thought I would ever find myself saying this, but I could have used a bit more exposition in this one, specifically, a section explaining how this culture-engulfing (but not Culture-engulfing, for yes, The Player of Games is another Culture novel, the second Banks wrote), empire-determining game that our protagonist travels for over a year (and that's a hyperspeed year, so a very great distance indeed) to join in on, actually works or is played. I know that adding such would not increase the tension or enhance the character moments or affect the plot in anyway, but when so much of a story's "action" consists of game play, wouldn't it be nifty to understand the moves and know what the boards look like and understand how things progress from cards to... to... to what's the next stage, actually?

I want to believe that this game, called Azad (also the name of the galaxy-spanning empire in which the game is played, determines civil services rankings right up to the job of Emperor [yeah, that's right: the Emperor of Azad is the empire's best player of the game of Azad), is playable and consistent, its moves as described in many, many parts of this novel actually part of something rather than just thrown together to suit the narrative and I'm just not sure that I believe it is so.

Because, yes, I am a player of games, and I care about these things, probably too much. Enough so, at least, to have had a lot of trouble putting this aside and just enjoying the story, which is really just a way for a man and a drone from Banks' free-wheeling, anarchistic, post-scarcity Culture to be the "Man from Mars" through whose eyes a barbaric, hierarchical, violent and very much scarcity-based, zero-sum Empire can be viewed (of course Azad is a lot more like what we 20th/21st century humans are used to than the Culture is. Of course). I'm gathering as I survey the Culture novels that Banks has decided to define his creation principally by showing us example after example of what it is not.

Since the non-Culture society in this is dominated by its game, a Culture citizen who has devoted pretty much his entire life to playing and mastering games is the perfect way to covertly explore it, and so in goes our man Gurgeh, accompanied only by a tiny* drone who has been instructed to play dumb and hum and buzz a lot and move around in a big fake carapace so that the Azadians don't catch on to how advanced Culture technology really is; play the game, learn the society, spy on them but don't give any of us away, ho ho! Best line: "You're saying  my balls are some sort of state secret?"

Despite my annoyance at not understanding the game of Azad, I wound up enjoying this novel quite a lot -- more so than the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Like in that story, some of the most interesting passages concern an artificial life form, in this case Flere-Imsaho, the drone who accompanies our game player to Azad. Like most Culture drones, the machine that houses its consciousness is compact and simple-looking, almost like a floating metal head, but it can interact with the world as deftly as any biological citizen through its manipulation of fields; also like a biological citizen, it has a distinct, and amusingly foul-mouthed, personality. It gets snippy at having to lumber around in its clumsy disguise; it gets bored pretending to be just a sort of glorified calculator (but no, never reaches Marvin levels thereof); it would really rather be birdwatching on the Azad homeworld than pretending to be Gurgeh's translator bot. I sort of love Flere-Imsaho.

Excellent also is the opportunity to reflect on our own society, presented here in an (alas!) only slightly exaggerated and extreme form, that this foray offers (and no, it really doesn't come off very well, society doesn't). For of course my sympathies and aspirations are much  more Cultural than actual, as it were.

But something else has occurred to me as I consider this book. What would a Man from Mars think of us, say, if he arrived on our planet during March Madness? How certain could we be that he did not interpret this as an overall contest for supremacy, a planetary power struggle given game form? Watch the bracket making of the pool bettors, the frenzy of the crowds that are present and the people gathered at sports bars and private parties, consider the rewards showered on players who stand out and succeed.

And then consider: how irritated would the Man from Mars be if no one ever sat him down and explained basketball to him?

*Very tiny. I was more than halfway through the story before I realized this Flere-Imsaho was that small. We're talking earring-sized. And for good reason. Naughty drone, naughty puss!

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