Review: Iain M. Banks - The Player of Games
Quick Face-Value Synopsis and Structural Note
Gurgeh, a great gameplayer, is talked into cheating at a game by an AI drone and then blackmailed into getting the drone something it wants. In order to get this, Gurgeh must venture to an empire in the Magellanic clouds to play the Game that determines their ruler and defines their society.
The story is told in four sections (really three as the last is more of an epilogue) with no chapter divisions, the first three of which begin with a sort of narrative note and the last of which ends with one.
Three Primary Problems
For me, discussing Iain M. Banks' The Player of Games (my edition being a March 2008 Orbit (US) trade paperback to which all page numbers refer) involves a bundle of contradictions. For instance, there is some excellent writing throughout but one of the book's big problems is a variety of poor writing. And the book has so many things wrong with it that I should summarily dismiss it but there's an aspect in which I like it. But you can't really say anything clear and sensible while waffling like that so I'll be making statements that are initially more one-sided and absolute than might seem fair but it is fair as long as the ambivalence is kept in mind. Also, I could be accused of being willfully obtuse regarding Banks' theme and objectives but, in my opinion, a story must work first on a surface level and be well executed for entertainment purposes before considering anything else.
The book labors under three primary problems which all dovetail to make the first 120 pages (or even 175 or 250 - of 391) almost unreadable. First, as a protagonist, the protagonist is poorly conceived and presented, though he'd make an interesting flawed secondary character. This is funny to me, as - skip this phrase if you haven't read Consider Phlebas - the protagonist of his first novel might actually be some authors' villain and it works wonderfully (end skip). Put simply, the protagonist, Gurgeh, is a conceited, self-centered, monomaniacal game player who is supposed to be one of the best and is presented as ineptly playing a sort of futuristic paintball game (not his thing), losing a game to a stranger during travel (off day), and then conspiring with an AI drone to cheat in order to not just win, but pull off the coup of a perfect game against a newly arrived young girl - at which he fails. In the main game, after finally winning - an easy preliminary round - he faces a concerted attack by several other players. To quote the results: "He'd panicked and they'd trounced him. He was a dead man." (Fitting that his name makes me think of "Gurgle".)
The second primary problem is some of the varieties of poor writing. For instance, there's the following paragraph:
"He learned more about the empire itself, its history and politics, philosophy and religion, its beliefs and mores, and its mixtures of subspecies and sexes." (130)
That's an almost completely useless paragaph. "He spent time studying the empire" or "He learned that the empire's history was a story of X, Y, and Z" are concise or convey content. The paragraph above is longer and vacuous.
Then there's the central problem with the games themselves. There are no actual rules or parameters for success or failure given so you get a great many things of which the start of this paragraph is an example:
"After a great struggle, almost to midnight, Gurgeh finished fractionally ahead." (223)
Aren't you just shaking with the emotional drain of that "great struggle"? Isn't it a joy to know the protagonist is "fractionally ahead"?
So even when there are good gaming descriptions, they lack concrete impact. For instance, when Gurgle was a dead man, he is resurrected by Banks in a clever way that is nevertheless simply a bunch of handwaving (185-7). He "made some at first sight inconsequential, purposeless moves" that "threaten" others at the cost of making his "own forces more vulnerable" and a player "panicked" and another "rushes to attack" and some of Gurgeh's cards act "rather like mines in a Possession game" (the gonkulator is rather like the frobnitz) and the enemy was eventually "left with almost nothing, forces scattering over the board like dead leaves" and so on. So, yeah, you get the idea that Gurgeh cleverly used a method of divide-and-conquer on his massed attackers, throwing them out of sync and weakening them until winning a round. But, um, what would have made this either impossible or necessary? Nothing but Banks' fiat. And what is it like to read? Usually pretty boring, unsurprisingly.
The third primary problem is the predictability of it all. Almost as soon as I'd started reading, I realized that it had to end one of two ways with one fundamental result and, indeed, it does pick one of those ways to achieve that one result. I can't get into it further than that here [click spoiler page if you wish] but, Banks has his own narrator/characters say negative things about the ending that are unfortunately quite accurate. And there's a second minor mystery regarding the narrator that is nearly as predictable as the main plot.
It should also be kept in mind that this book has a single main character with only two handfuls of satellite characters, one in each of the two main settings (or three settings if counting the transit ship with Gurgeh, the AI drone, and the ship AI, none of whom are unique to the transit) and has a single storyline. It would have made a much better novella than a novel even without addressing any of the other problems.
So we spend the first 120 pages watching a great gameplayer be a jerk, lose games, cheat and still not accomplish the goal of the cheating, and then be blackmailed by an even greater jerk of an AI drone into going to an alien empire to do something perfectly predictable despite being vaguely described. Then we spend the next 60~ pages transiting to and arriving at the empire's main world. Then we spend 70-80 pages alternating between (finally!) playing this vague but religiously important game and taking time off to sample the nightlife and so on. Then, in the worst part of the book, the drone takes our guy on a trip through Azad's undercity using the same kind of writing the people use who produce those commercials of abused animals in order to solicit contributions (255-66). Finally, in arguably the best part of the book, the story really seems to begin with a very grippingly and cleverly written scene of great emotional intensity (267-71). It later falters but is still clearly in "now we're really into the story" mode.
Writing Issues Continued
At the risk of being accused of doing a hatchet job in the Egan sense (especially as I've already made fun of the character's name), what follows could be charitably called an expansion and addition to the above or might just be considered a laundry list of random things. Skip this section if so inclined.
I mentioned the wasteful writing before but further examples are of "arriving" on the empire's main world - when does it happen? Page 143 when we arrive in the system and are inspected? Page 146 when we are in the atmosphere? Page 148 when we touch down and meet and greet the first time? (My vote.) Page 153 when we arrive at the hotel? 156-167 when we meet the Culture ambassador and the Azadian Emperor? 166-75 for the rest of the party? 176 when we finally start playing the game? Somewhere in these minutely detailed don't-miss-a-step 33 pages, we "arrive". The 23 pages of transit including ship meetings and transfers are similarly meticulous. Such are the first 56 pages of the second section.
In addition to the wasteful writing, there's also the overwriting (subtly different) which the narrator even cops to. A long paragraph is followed by: "Ah well, getting a bit flowery there," but it's not the only place.
On the other hand, to match the wasteful/over writing, there's the underwriting. I mentioned the handwavium with how Gurgeh does in the games but there's also the technical handwaving - I almost like the "I'm not a scientist so I don't know" method but Banks won't let his character be that straightforward.
[Gurgeh] looked up briefly at the torus on the screen, and remembered something he'd puzzled over, years ago now. "What's the difference between hyperspace and ultraspace?" he asked the drone. "The ship mentioned ultraspace once and I never could work out what the hell it was talking about."
The drone tried to explain, using the holo-model of the Reality to illustrate. As ever, it over-explained, but Gurgeh got the idea, for what it was worth. (340)
The end. Oh, well I'm glad Gurgeh got it. So did I, crystal-clear. And I imagine it was worth a lot since, if it ever really mattered to anything, I missed it. (So maybe this is just wasteful writing after all?) Also, there's a logistical problem relating to the drone "over-explaining" which I can't get into here but, suffice to say, it's an odd thing for the narrator to say about the drone.
For something along the lines of making fun of "Gurgle", the "Castle Klaff" makes me think of "coffee klatsch" but I can hardly hang Banks for that glitch between his words and my head. Still... "Klaff"? "Castle Klaff"?
For a final note on the writing as such (becoming more structural) there are a few moments where the narrative viewpoint of "Gurgeh's eyes and, to a lesser extent, his subjectivity" is broken such as page 191 (I noticed no earlier occurrences though I'm sure there must have been) where we see the drone Flere speak off of Gurgeh's stage and then a non-Gurgeh subjectivity occurs (again, the first I noticed) on page 267 when we enter Bermoiya's subjective state. Both of these very definitely accomplish something when they're done but the jarring exception doesn't seem worth it - or rather, the relative lack of other instances make them excessively jarring. Put simply, I found the narrative viewpoint strange, even as an excuse is finally made for it (and which excuse was previously guessed).
I don't prize originality and novelty above all else and have no problems with people covering familiar terrain as long as other virtues compensate but I was still struck by how very many SF game playing stories there are, even down to those games shaping societies and determining rulers. Naturally, I can't think of very many to substantiate the point but most readers can probably generate their own examples. Dick's Solar Lottery and much else, a variety of Sheckley's stuff, I think - a great many stories in the 50s/60s where it had a sort of vogue - some van Vogt has a similar feel even if it might not precisely match. Etc.
Much of the discussion of Azadian sexuality (allowing for three vs. one) felt like a cursory take on Le Guin's Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different angle taken, naturally, but still similar and not quite as thorough.
A further massive problem with this part was that, aside from the three sexes, these aliens in another galaxy were almost entirely current Western humans (and, loosely, humans generally, despite having medieval customs and attire and a futuristic old-style SF star-empire) while the Culture were the aliens. Just a little too undisguisedly about the present and scientifically implausible for my taste.
Much of the discussion of the Culture language, Marain, reminded me of Vance's The Languages of Pao and, again, was vitally important to the book yet rather summarily covered in it. There are other Vancian aspects to this that I can't put a finger on.
I unkindly said above that the trip through the undercity (which could be seen as Cordwainer Smith-ish, even) reminded me of the abused animal commercials but it also could be said to be like a story I read with two disembodied spirits sitting up on a billboard or building or something, observing a variety of misery below. I thought this was a story I didn't particularly like by an author I did and was thinking it was Kuttner but I can't find it. Maybe it was by Sturgeon - or Leiber, or Brown, or Pohl or... somebody.
Anyway, the point is not that this is derivative but that it doesn't really seem to better its predecessors or do anything that made me think, "Wow, I've seen this sort of thing but not in just this way".
To be fair (and explain how I managed to keep reading this - which I wouldn't have regardless if I hadn't already liked Consider Phlebas pretty well, which gave Banks some pre-existing credit to squander) I should talk about some good things.
Drones! Chamlis playing with the drink without the glass and the whole early party sequence which introduced the blackmailing drone, Mawhrin-skel, was entertaining. And I haven't laughed so hard in a long time as I did with this, the drone Flere's best of many great moments. (He's been told he has to wear a clunky old-fashioned looking drone body over his actual form so the Azadians won't realize how sophisticated he is and Gurgeh unwisely suggests it could be called "fancy dress".)
"Fancy?" the library drone screamed. "Fancy? Dowdy's what it is; rags! Worse than that, I'm supposed to make a 'humming' noise and produce lots of static electricity, just to convince these barbarian dingbats we can't build drones properly!" The small machine's voice rose to a screech. "A 'humming' noise, I ask you!" (139)
And, indeed, the humming, sparking, clunky, wobbling Flere is used to great effect throughout the remainder.
As I said, while the gaming is mostly handwavium and lacks any real convincing drama or credibility for the most part, there are some excellent bits of general strategy or even parts of the game that do have credibility by being tightly connected to "real-world" events. For instance, on page 321 when a character called Yomonul converses with Gurgeh about nothing much which causes another called Traff to believe they've come to an alliance so the latter spends the rest of the round anxiously (mis)playing that phantom alliance.
While the great bit of writing in what I think of as the "executioner" scene (267-71 above) is severely blunted through a loss of focus (or bowing too easily to pressure), once the story gets going and the focus is put on the final rounds and its sociological significance, it's pretty interesting and has something to say, both in terms of fictional groundwork for the Culture and in terms of humanity in general, including the present day.
Also, while I don't think the "wasteful" writing contributes to it (though, if it did, it would serve as a sort of justification), I noticed that much of Consider Phlebas had an extraordinary "vividity" to it (yeah, I'm making up a word because "vividness" is weak and if "lividity" can be a word, why can't "vividity"?) and The Player of Games, while lacking that intensity of it, is also much more vivid than it seems it should be.
So, yeah - the drones kept it alive through the torturous beginning and the end of the book got better. But I still couldn't recommend it to any but Banks completists.