I wont won't write my usual long review essay for The Player of Games, because as I sit, typing this, waiting for my delivery pizza to arrive (yes, wife and children are away) it grows late and dark and time is short. I am near the end of the book, and want to finish before we start.
So let me start by thanking Mick, I think, for pestering me to schedule this title. I know others had suggested it before, but the combination of Mick's persistence and the sad news from Banks himself recently was enough to find us here tonight. I think I have enjoyed this Culture story as much as any I've read. And I was surprised to discover I hadn't actually read it many years ago as I had thought.
I came to it new and it was with some excitement that I realised I was in for an unexpected treat, and of course some sadness that this will be the last time I get to experience that free falling sensation of dropping rapidly and deeply into Banks' imagined universe anew.
It's not unusual for us to see the Culture through eyes of outsiders. The author often employs the outside view to render the Culture in starker terms than would be possible with an insider telling a story from the inside. In Games, we are also 'outside', but this time removed from the Culture by distance, rather than by point of view. (Although, arguably, as Gurgeh becomes ever more deeply enmeshed within the Empire of Azad, his PoV becomes less that of a fully civilized Culture citzen and more of someone caught between cultures.)
Then again, when we meet Gurgeh he is already drifting away from the Culture.
"...at the moment, Chamlis… Sometimes I start to think I'm repeating myself, that even new games are just old ones in disguise, and that nothing is worth playing for anyway."
"Gurgeh," Chamlis said matter-of-factly, and did something it rarrely did, actually settling physically into the couch, letting it take its weight. "Settle up; are we talking about games, all life?"
Gurgeh put his dark-curled head back and laughed.
"Games," Chamlis went on, "have been your life. If they're starting to pall, I understand you might not be so happy with anything else."
"Maybe I'm just disillusioned with games," Gurgeh said, turning a card game piece over in his hands. "I used to think that context didn't matter; a good game was a good game and there was a purity about manipulating rules that translated perfectly from society to society… But now I wonder."
We know of course, because Banks has told us, that Gurgeh is a celebrated figure within the Culture precisely because he is a player of games. But if you look at the long arc of the Culture series you can see that gameplay and a sort of childlike innocence is characteristic of the entire civilization. To turn his back on the playing of games is to turn his back on the Culture.
But narratively, that's exactly what Banks has in mind. He forces Gurgeh to run from what he knows when he sets up the blackmail by the rogue drone Mawhrin-Skel. And by removing the narrator from the culture, and depositing him into an almost entirely antithetical society, we are allowed to reflect on the civilization Banks has invented.
I think this is one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. The Culture is an idealized apotheosis of Western civilization, but in The Player of Games we get to see Banks reflecting on that same civilization through a glass, much more darkly. From the moment Gurgeh (whom my dictation software winningly wants to render as 'go gay') arrives in the Empire, Banks wastes no opportunity to remind us how much it should remind us of the worst of ourselves. This reaches the most sickening depths during Gurgeh's secret nighttime visits to the lower levels of the city with Flere-Imsaho, where he is exposed to the corruption and depravity that lies behind the great game. But we can see it as soon as he sets foot within the Empire.
"He also had an odd feeling that they were laughing at him, somewhere behind their faces. Apart from the obvious physical differences, the Azadians all seemed very compact and hard and determined compared to Culture people; more energetic and even – if he was going to be critical – neurotic. The apices were, anyway. From the little he saw of the males, they seemed somehow dullar, less fraught and more stolid as well as being physically bulkier, while the females appear to be quieter – somehow deeper – and more delicate looking."
Banks often uses the Culture to show us how good we could be, but in this book he's also showing us the worst of ourselves.
I loved it.
I both read and listened to Games, having purchased it as an e-book and an audiobook. It's the first time I've ever listened to a Culture novel, having read all of the previous ones, mostly in paperback. I said before the part of the reason I enjoyed this work so much was because it felt like the last time I would get to visit the Culture for the first time. But actually, that's wrong. Listening to the Audible version of Player of Games felt like a very different experience to reading a Banks novel. A deeper, more immersive experience. It has convinced me to go back and purchase the entire series in audiobook form. If this is a form of 'reading' you enjoy, I can't recommend it highly enough for these novels.
I have a few other points I want to make, but I will do so in the comments as the issues come up. I'm now going to finish the last couple of pages, along with my pizza. For tonight's book club I am drinking James Squires' The Chancer, with a chaser of Highland Park.