Classics Review: The Player of Games
Politics are a very complicated subject, international politics, where there is so much clashing of cultures, is even more complex. So it is rare indeed to find science fiction that deals with the complexity in a way that is not only easy to understand but also enjoyable. A story that takes a conflict of ideology and makes it into something tangible that can be observed and understood. It has been said that you can learn a lot about a person from the way that they play board games, if they adopt aggressive strategies then you can assume that they, as a person, are aggressive. If they employ more cunning strategies you might think that they are manipulative or underhanded in their real life dealings. The Player of Games by Iain M Banks takes all of this to its logical conclusion. A society built entirely around a complex strategy game, where social standing, wealth and position are all defined by how well the game is played. The game is a microcosm of the society and the strategies that win are reflected in the policies that the lawmakers adopt. In essence it has created a social Darwinist society viewed through one very tight filter. This is the foreign power. The alien culture that has to be understood for politics to happen, The Empire of Azad, named for their game: Azad.
The familiar group that we are expected to root for is the Culture, Banks’ super advanced post-scarcity hybrid society where machines and something resembling humans live together in absolute comfort. Much has been said about how the Culture represents western society taken to its logical end but very little is mentioned about the undercurrent of disdain that the writer seems to feel towards these coddled creatures. To the average citizen of the Culture crises are exclusively philosophical. Hedonism is the name of the game and the incredible technology that surrounds them allows them to live long comfortable lives without consequence. None of which make for particularly compelling reading. It is only when confronted by an outside force that the Culture is forced to show its capability. In the Player of Games we follow the closest thing that the Culture has to a professional gamer, Gurgeh, as he is blackmailed into participating in the alien race’s great game as an exhibition of the Culture’s respective ability, a sort of show of power to the game obsessed Azad. Ostensibly for diplomatic reasons but later for far more sinister ones.
Much of the story follows Gurgeh as he tries to navigate and assimilate into the Empire of Azad for the duration of his stay. It is brutish and cruel to his Cultured eyes but of course it doesn’t have the benefits of such advanced technology and resources that any problem can be waved away. In fact when he is threatened with castration as part of a bet on a game it is noted that he considers throwing the match since anything removed from him would simply grow back but anything removed from his opponent would be permanently lost. A life without consequences, with no pressure beyond playing games to the limit of his ability.
The way that Gurgeh plays the game of Azad, is either deliberately or accidentally a representative of how the Culture manages itself. Where the natives wage war in straightforward combat the “morally superior” Culture instead shore up their resources and let opposition wither. It is only when pushed to the edge of desperation that Gurgeh and the Culture shows its teeth and begins waging brutally efficient war back on the Azad. All within the context of the game of course. Proving very succinctly that they have to be the winners regardless of whether their victory is moral or on the exact same level as that of their opponents. A pretty apt description of Euro-American foreign policy if ever their was one. This is the true demonstration that Gurgeh’s blackmailers were looking for, the warning shot that they fire over the bow of an Empire that is getting too uppity in their region of space. The results are predictably catastrophic. Especially when Gurgeh’s final opponent is the Emperor himself, the living pinnacle of Azad game-play and society.