Tuesday, 1 July 2003

Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games (1988)

Edition: MacMillan, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1169

The second Culture novel is a good deal less ambitious than the first, Consider Phlebas. Indeed, it is outwardly, at least, one of Banks' simplest novels. The Culture is concerned about its relationship with a distant, aggressive interstellar empire named Azad. There, position in life, and even imperial policy, are determined by a game, also named Azad, which is a massively complex simulation of life which has aspects akin to such games as chess, Diplomacy, Risk, go and bridge. Contact, the aspect of the Culture which deals with the outside, chooses a famous game player to take part in the annual grand tournament, and he is the book's central character.

The story is simple enough, but what The Player is about is a little more than this. There are several ways in which the ideas of the novel could be related to the real world, and I suspect that Banks means some or all of them. Many games, of course including the board games mentioned above, model aspects of real life, usually emphasising combat for obvious reasons. We don't tend to equate skill in such games with social success; a chess grand master may be considered clever, but most people would probably feel it was a pretty nerdish thing to be. This is partly because of the limitations of the games' representations of the real world (a simplification which also provides a reason for some people's obsession with them), but also partly that players become engrossed in the games themselves to the extent that they can't be bothered to attempt to succeed in the real world. (This is of course particularly true of computer and role playing games.) To such people, the game is the world, in the same way that Azad the game is Azad the empire.

On the other hand, one of the major tools which is used to determine government policy in the Western world, particularly in the economic sphere, is computer simulation, based on the ideas of game theory. These simulations are basically games without human players, though setting the conditions of the simulation (such as interest rates) is one activity analogous to game play, and the actions of agents simulated by the computer program form another. Azad has elements of this sort of simulation in it, particularly in the parts of the game which are affected by the philosophical statements set down by the players in advance. (The connection is clear if these are thought of as the ideologies which suggest if not determine policy.) Azad is this development exaggerated (though, curiously, without any explicit mention of computers), and the attitude that Banks seems to have to the empire is his commentary on where this might lead. Azad is a stagnated society run by an elite for their own benefit, regardless of the brutalisation of two thirds of the population (the dominant species has three sexes); even the game itself is manipulated. Of course, no government would dream of faking the results of simulations for their own ends...

Other suggestive aspects of the novel include the game-like machinations of Contact to get the Culture's champion to Azad, or the possibility that Banks is commenting on the tendency of the science fiction genre to have a hero prevail by lateral thinking, solving a puzzle about as realistic as a Bond villain's mechanism for killing the famous spy, something which makes some novels seem like poor role playing scenarios.

The Player of Games is not the only Banks novel which gives game playing an important role; the futile, impossible games in Walking on Glass are another example. Here the author is successfully playing a little game with the reader, hiding a great deal of complexity under a simple surface.

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