Friday 28 January 2011

The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks

I've finished re-reading Iain M. Banks' The Player Of Games. I thought Banks showed a growing mastery of style in this novel, unlike Consider Phlebas where several sentences in a row were sometimes clotted with clauses and fly-specked with commas. The style is considerably more fluid here and the lyrical streak in Banks's prose is allowed more free rein in describing the various strange settings Jernau Gurgeh, the player of games, moves through as well as the mental states associated with his immersion in his game-playing.

Gurgeh is a master gamer, sent by Special Circumstances, the Culture's espionage wing, to the empire of Azad. Power in Azad is won as the result of an individual's peformance in the great game that gives the empire its name. I wonder if there's a nod here to the 'Great Game' between the British and Russian empires for control of central Asia in the 19th century. Banks' depiction of the empire of Azad is obviously a critique of  imperialism and it goes beyond simple outrage to portray a society that is built on identifying and destroying innocence at every level. I can't help but read a similar critique of western foreign policy into the Culture's unwillingness to overtly enter into hostlities against a regime that is opposed to everything it stands for, out of deference to the common people of Azad, who would wind up being conscripted against their would-be liberators rather than uniting against their imperial oppressors in such a scenario.

The game of Azad is not shown in any detail; there is no way you can even approximate a description of its rules from the hints Banks lets out. Instead, Banks focuses on the mental rigours and insights Gurgeh has to experience to master the game. Again, this is a fascinating process because of the reactions of Gurgeh, a citizen of a loosely organised, anarchistic society to a rigidly structured and hierarchical society. At some level, Azad is not that different from any of our societies, a point that hits home when we see an Azad city through Gurgeh's eyes, with its  crowds, traffic, chaos, sharp divides between privilege and poverty and its architectural patchwork.

The suspense grows to a fever pitch, and it soon becomes clear that Gurgeh is playing for higher stakes than simply to make a decent showing in the game of Azad and help boost the Culture's prestige. There's a memorable final act which works on both the surface level of the story and as a summation of the political and social ideas Banks is playing around with. Banks' mechanical characters continue to be more appealing and engaging than his humans, but otherwise, this is a satisfying novel, thought provoking, exciting and as good on my second read as I recall it being the first time around.

PS: The gender business, while fascinating to me the first time around, does not play a very significant role in anything. Banks' points about the differing role of gender in the egalitarian, sex-changing Culture and Azad could as well have been made with normal number of genders. It would also work better if I felt Banks actually had any intention of engaging with gender in any serious way, which a number of things in this novel and its predecessor argue against. Still, it's a nice little touch of SFnal strangeness.

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