Today I’m going to break my own rules. You see, at the time of writing Iain Banks has recently died. I’d normally write about one of his short stories, except he wrote very few of them. While they were good, none of them evoked a passion in me. For most posts that would be enough to make me write about the story and see what makes it tick. But I feel that for a eulogy masquerading as a recommendation I want to write about something I’m passionate about.

Which is why I’m talking about one of his early novels today. It’s not one of his best, or his most innovative, or containing his most brilliant scenes. But it’s perhaps his best straightforward novel (not that he did many of them), and a book that astounded me when I was young. I can still quote lines from the climax. (By the way, I’m not going to reveal any spoilers beyond the blurb.)

This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player called ‘Gurgeh’. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game.

The battle in question turns out to be for recreation, with missiles that carefully deconstruct and armored suits that seize and play dead when struck. Gurgeh doesn’t enjoy it; there’s too much luck and AI, and not enough logic, for his tastes. For he’s a connoisseur of games, one of the best generalists in the galaxy. He’s adept enough that he can play people who’ve spent years specializing in a single game and give them a challenge.

If you’ve read the book’s blurb, you know that this is going to be about Gurgeh going off to an alien empire to play games there. But the aliens aren’t mentioned for a long time, and he doesn’t decide to leave until the one-third mark. This first section is about his everyday life. When I reread this book a few years ago, I remember feeling that it was a slow start, that it dawdled on the way to the aliens. But this time I realized how much I enjoy this prelude.

Many of Banks’ obituaries mentioned that his main SF setting, the Culture, was one of the few SF societies they’d actually like to live in. This comes from a combination of three things: post-scarcity economics, where you can ask for and receive just about anything you like for free; a permissive, anarchic social system with almost no rules; and, with the Culture spanning over half the galaxy, far more living space than anyone could ever need.

With this setup, most crime simply fails to make sense. What’s thievery when you can make a perfect duplicate? What’s blackmail when any evidence can be faked pixel-perfect? Here’s Gurgeh trying to explain how all this works to the aliens:

‘But if someone kills somebody else?’

Gurgeh shrugged. ‘They’re slap-droned.’

‘Ah! This sounds more like it. What does this drone do?’

‘Follows you around and makes sure you never do it again.’

‘Is that all?’

‘What more do you want? Social death, Hamin; you don’t get invited to too many parties.’

‘Ah; but in your Culture, can’t you gatecrash?’

‘I suppose so,’ Gurgeh conceded. ‘But nobody’d talk to you.’

Now, so far what I’ve described is not unique in fiction. There are plenty of utopian societies where you can do what you like. But most of them, either intentionally or unintentionally, don’t sound like they’d be much fun to live in; they’re often presented as limitless hedonism, which must surely get boring after a while.

From the quote, and its reference to parties, you might think that this Culture is another hedonistic society. And it could be, but only if you wanted it to be. What I love about Banks’ setting is the sheer choice. You can try the hedonism for a while, or you can live in a shack on a mountaintop and never see anyone. Or swap the shack for a palace. Or you could play any one of a thousand sports and games, or learn how to carve the perfect canoe by hand, or become an ecologist and study a myriad species, or…

As for Gurgeh, he spends much of his time as a recluse. He studies new board games from across the galaxy, writes academic papers, and accepts or declines invitations to play games by people who, because of Gurgeh’s reputation, would deem it an honor to merely lose to him. One of his friends is a frustrated terraformer who’s trying to convince people they’d like to live on floating sky islands and near active volcanoes. Another really enjoys being pregnant; the Culture norm is for a person to father one child and mother another, but there are always some people who like being one gender more of the time.

Now this sort of place is difficult to write compellingly. If a utopia is genuine, where’s the drama to propel the plot? Banks’ solution is for the plot to take place outside of the Culture, or at least be driven by things that are happening outside of the Culture. But even when the story has to take place within the Culture’s cozy confines, as with the first third of this book, there is always something that characters can worry about. In Gurgeh’s case it’s the unhappiness people sometimes feel when they’re at the top of their craft: the frustration at the lack of challenge, and the simultaneous fear that someday someone younger than them will better them. All the technology in the world can’t get rid of that anxiety.

It’s because of this, in part, that drama ensues. These events lead to Gurgeh’s motivation to leave for a little while, and go to this alien civilization mentioned in the blurb. And in the next post I’ll talk about what he does there.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

Availability: print, e-book, audio

First published: 1988

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