A Disappointing VictoryThoughts on The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
In The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, world-famous game player Jernau Morat Gurgeh competes in an alien civilization’s tournament. The game is central to the functioning of the society, so much so that they share the same name–Azad. While the novel has its moments, they fail under the weight of a passe story.
For one thing, the setting makes Gurgeh almost unrelatable. His language, culture and life history are barely explained (and contain inconsistencies 1). Even his psysiology is foreign, though Banks at least acknowledges this with some brief explanations about how Gurgeh can precisely regulate his body chemistry. This alone wouldn’t preclude empathy, but he’s dropped into the Empire of Azad–a setting that’s unfamiliar even to him. Between the alien language, unrecognizable culture, and dearth of historical background, readers have no frame of reference for understanding the protagonist.
Worse, Gurgeh never develops as a character. It’s easy (though disappointing) to understand why: he doesn’t change because he doesn’t need to. While he’s apparently traumatized after witnessing Azad’s sadistic subculture, that trauma leads nowhere. He doesn’t need to reevaluate his priorities; he doesn’t need to nurture any relationships. He just has to “be good at games” really hard and then go home, unchanged.
There’s a time and place for a static and distant hero, but Player doesn’t even make a decent space adventure. Banks offers promising concepts (e.g. a truly gender-fluid society, a race with three sexes, and a man who excels at any game you put in front of him) but doesn’t explore any of them. The protagonist isn’t even likable: Gurgeh is jaded, dishonest, and arrogant. This undermines even the simple thrill of victory over adversity.
The book has some strengths, though! Banks patiently reveals aspects of the impossibly convoluted game of Azad (replete with room-sized playing areas and living tokens), and it’s fun to consider how such an impossibly convoluted game could be integrated into a society. Gurgeh’s antagonistic relationship with his guide is also refreshing in its harshness. There’s no assurance of mutual respect, and there’s no resolution. Finally, tucked away in the moments before the final conflict, Gurgeh reflects the unspoken relationship that he’s developed with his opponent. The emotion is surprisingly accessible, and it’s impressively shattered in the emotional climax.
In short: The Player of Games is a simplistic adventure story where an unlikable alien callously competes in a foreign competition, learning little and caring less. The interesting concepts don’t sufficiently motivate the 350+ pages in between. While it’s possible that this all works better in the context of Banks’ “Culture” series, I’m not interested in learning how.
Because the “Culture” is so thoroughly advanced, Gurgeh is unfamiliar with many aspects of adversarial society. It’s not clear why “time off for good behavior” would be part of his vernacular:
“Poor guy. I see he has to stand, as well.”
“Well, one shouldn’t try to outsmart the Emperor, I guess,” Flere-Imsaho said. “But his sentence is almost over.”
“No time off for good behavior?”
“The Imperial Penal Service does not deal in discounts. They do add time on if you behave badly, though.”