Book: The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
“It was not so difficult to understand the warped view the Azadians had of what they called “human nature” – the phrase they used whenever they had to justify something inhuman and unnatural”
And here’s where I feel like I am committing some sort of faux pax in Sci-Fi circles by failing to be particularly fond of the Culture novels which seem to be fairly generally beloved.
I have to admit that I went into this after having failed to get through one of his non Sci-Fi novels as a teenager so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. In the end I didn’t dislike the book as much as I thought I was going to from the start, but I also didn’t find anything particularly amazing in it either.
Perhaps I am reading this at the wrong sort of time, I have read a lot of books that deal with similar subject matter in a way I vastly preferred to this that were mostly written later on, it’s hard to say for sure though since I can only deal with it in the context of when I have read it, which is here in 2019.
The problem I have with it isn’t that the writing is bad, it certainly isn’t (otherwise this score would be a whole lot lower), it’s more that the main protagonist is an ass, I dislike the Culture and the Azadian people he ends up visiting are basically current human society if we had somewhat better tech and had gone to the stars, but also removed almost every good trait from us and were basically just a load of asshole with no visible redeeming features. I basically spent the whole thing wanting bad things to happen to everyone in it and that… was not massively enjoyable I have to say.
Now for sure, it did come across that the author also agrees that his main character is an asshole, but the problem was that I wasn’t really given anyone or anything to really care about for the whole story. This, combined with the fact that I ended up disliking both civilisations, left me cold. There is also a reveal at the end which came across in a smug, superior way and yes, this is meant to be because of who is narrating it, but it was just pouring oil on a fire to me. I do want to explore this more, but I need to get into spoiler territory so I shall do that further down.
Before I do that I did want to try and find some positive things to say, because I didn’t hate the story, it just disappointed and annoyed me in a number of places. I will say that The Culture is, in some ways, a fairly progressive setting for its time, so it is a shame that it is barely explored at all. I do like that the main character is mostly presented as an unlikeable asshole, too many authors would seem to love this sort of character unironically and he doesn’t.
There are also good themes and ideas in the book, which I did appreciate. Just for me I have seen them done elsewhere in ways more suiting to my taste. I will also admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Culture, but a genderfluid, sexuality fluid utopia written in the late 90s was not it (good surprise if you hadn’t guessed). I will say that I thought The Left Hand of Darkness did this sort of exploration of gender differences in a much better way and earlier. The fact that Gurgeh, a straight male (he is clearly shown as such in the books) was the protagonist of such a culture was honestly deeply disappointing.
“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules.”
And now onto spoiler territory. OK, so as mentioned above I was pretty disappointed that such an asshole of a character was the main character, especially when by the end he was meant to be the Champion of the Culture, thought that did pretty much solidify my thoughts on that civilisation as well. But he is a cheat, a liar and a gross asshole who chases young women (it’s specific on that point), including one who has apparently turned him down loads of times and he whinges because she will sleep with other people and not with him. This wouldn’t be too bad if he really got some sort of proper journey of discovery but his journey seems to consist of him enjoying himself, realising that the Azadian culture is awful and becoming cruel in order to best them at their own game, fighting for the Culture but then realising at the end that The Culture manipulated him from the start because they needed a game player to beat them at their own game so they could bring down their Empire.
Then he goes home. Sure, he’s been through some trauma but we don’t really see much of him after that suggests he has particularly changed in any way and at the end he gets his reward in that the woman who wouldn’t sleep with him before, does now. Honestly, I found that particular point a gross choice that really made me angry. There was absolutely no need for it, he wasn’t better, he wasn’t redeemed and that sort of narrative is broken and toxic and I am super done with it.
You may be wondering why I ended up disliking The Culture. Because to me is smacks of the same sort of self-righteous meddling in other cultures that many Western governments have been guilty of in the past and the present too. Do I think the Azadians are great? No. But basically overthrowing their Empire and then fucking off to leave them to pick up the pieces is vile. Not to mention manipulating one of your own citizens into causing all of that without warning them. They could have raised up and trained a game player to work for them and do that, but no… they used someone outside of their schemes with no care what happened to him afterwards and he may be an asshole, but they are much bigger assholes for that.
Maybe that was deliberate, maybe he’s trying to make a point with it, but if so I am not sure how well that comes across and it can easily be seen as making a case for why the ends justify the means. Even if he is making that point, again, I have seen it done better by people with far more personal experiences than the author does whose work therefore rang a little deeper in feeling for me than this does.
Basically, too cerebral and not enough emotions is my main issue. I want to actually feel things when reading and what I most felt was annoyance so it really didn’t work for me overall.