If you haven’t read part one, that would be a sensible place to start.
When we left, Gurgeh was on his way to an alien civilization to play a game. And what is it?
‘That game is called “Azad” by the natives. It is important enough for the empire itself to take its name from the game. You are looking at the Empire of Azad.’ […]
‘The game of Azad is used not so much to determine which person will rule, but 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 recognised within the religious apparat, and which political policies will be followed. The game is also used as an exam for both entry into and promotion within the empire’s religious, educational, civil administrational, judicial and military establishments.
‘The idea, you see, is that Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.’
The Culture’s foreign policy is that they would prefer not to use force. Indeed, they’d prefer to do as little as possible, and after a few centuries of coexistence the neighboring civilization would be voluntarily subsumed into the Culture. The Empire of Azad is unusual in that it is a monarchal, hierarchical society that has lasted long enough to achieve interstellar travel. It is technologically far less adept than the Culture, and with rampant institutional cruelty. There are three genders, with the apices holding all positions in society. Males are denigrated, females even more so.
The Culture has a few ambassadors in the Empire, and has been looking for someone who would be capable of playing Azad, who could participate in the games. They think Gurgeh’s just the man for the job.
Even to Gurgeh, Azad is fantastically complicated and the most elaborate game he’s ever encountered. It takes the ship two years to reach the Empire, and he spends every waking moment studying. The game consists of three major boards, and a number of smaller boards whose outcomes modify conditions on the major boards. As for the gameplay itself, I imagine it (very roughly) as a cross between Settlers of Catan and Chess, with the pieces changing shape and properties depending on their placement. (Except Catan hadn’t been invented when this was written, so Banks presumably had different references in mind.)
As it turns out, nobody is expecting Gurgeh to do well. He’s only played for two years, and the inhabitants of the Empire study it their entire lives. When he arrives he finds the local media have been proclaiming him the Culture’s greatest Azad player, intending to denigrate the Culture’s capabilities when he fails. Even the Culture’s ambassadors admit he’s there to make the Empire feel good about themselves, to make them more complacent in future dealings with the Culture.
All of this doesn’t exactly make Gurgeh happy. As someone used to winning, he’s all the more determined to prove himself.
I must admit, I didn’t enjoy rereading this part as much as I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it. But it’s perhaps the most predictable part of the novel, and this time around I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of cultural imperialism. You see, there’s a trope commonly found in older fiction, a patronizing flavor of racism. It’s the plot where a white male protagonist from a more advanced society comes to a less developed civilization and proves that he’s better than any of them at everything, even their local specialties. The online trope catalogue, TVTropes, lists a number of examples here.
I’m not sure if this is a valid reading of the text, and shades of this trope might be inherent in any substantial interaction between two disparately developed societies. It’s just something I noticed.
As for the Azad games, they remain impossible to understand. But Banks invests the gaming scenes with drama by selling the reactions by Gurgeh and his opponents, and because they care the reader cares too. There’s even some character given to the styles the players play in; one of Gurgeh’s advantages is that he has a different social outlook, and this makes his strategies fundamentally unexpected to them. This culminates in Gurgeh’s last game, which is the source of the passages I’ve memorized. The prose is passionate, the struggle is titanic, and it encapsulates the core themes of the novel.
I don’t have a handy segue to my last point, but I love the AI in the Culture. They’re often my favorite characters. Like the AI in charge of the Orbital Gurgeh lives on, and the wound to its professional pride when a highly advanced stealth drone manages to escape without the Orbital noticing. Or consider this, the Mind controlling the first ship Gurgeh travels on towards the Empire:
In fact it occurred to Gurgeh that the old warship was getting more out of the game than he was; it had learned it perfectly, and seemed to enjoy teaching him as well as simply glorying in the game itself as a complex and beautiful system. The ship admitted it had never fired its effectors in anger, and that perhaps it was finding something in Azad that it had missed in real fighting.
Or drones with irreverent streaks. Drones can be anything from tennis-ball-sized up, with full flight ability and a host of other things. When Gurgeh goes to the Empire he is assigned Flere-Imsaho to look after him. When they arrive the drone is horrified to discover that, to disguise the Culture’s technological level, Flere-Imsaho has to wear a bulky chassis to disguise his size. And to not hover as competently. And to audibly buzz. It’s mortified at being seen in such gear, and at night it shrugs it off to observe the migration habits of the local birds. I don’t know why, but I love the throwaway detail that Flere-Imsaho is a bird-spotter. When AI in fiction are allowed to have hobbies, they’re usually along the lines of computational math or digital design. But a bird-spotter? Why, it’s as if the AIs are allowed to be real characters in this universe.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Availability: print, e-book, audio
First published: 1988