Monday, 16 September 2013

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

The death of Iain Banks this year was a terrible loss to literature. He has at least left a prodigious output behind him with a fine body of both fiction and science fiction, as well as a paeon to the joys of whiskey. I have recently started reading a lot more sci-fi and when he announced his impending demise, it spurred me to read his entire set of Culture novels, in order...

The Culture, a sprawling, spacefaring human/machine utopian society, is the home of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a great player of games, a master of strategy and skill. He is also bored, and therefore easily persuaded to travel to the fabulously wealthy and sadistically cruel Empire of Azad, where the outcome of the complex strategic game central to their society chooses who will be emperor.

Gurgeh is met with suspicion and hostility in Azad and his only friends are an ornithology obsessed library drone and The Culture’s representative in Azad, the louche and fast living Shohobohaum Za. One of the first things Za does when he gets the chance is to take Gurgeh out for a night on the toot, which ends in attempted blackmail, a fight and a quick escape for the two of them. Surprisingly, Gurgeh is not too keen to repeat the experience. Able to synthesise his own highs using glands in his body like all people in The Culture, he is also unable to understand quite why Za drinks as much as he does:

“Za,” Gurgeh said, sitting forward, chin in hand, elbow on knee, “Why do you drink so much? You don’t need to; you’ve got all the usual glands. Why?”
“Why?” Za said, his head coming upright again; he looked round as though startled to see where he was for a moment. “Why?” he repeated. He hiccuped. “You asked me ‘Why?’?” he said. 
Gurgeh nodded.
Za scratched under one armpit, shook his head and looked apologetic. “What was the question again?”
“Why do you drink so much?” Gurgeh smiled tolerantly.
“Why not?” Za’s arms flapped once. “I mean, have you never done something just... just because? I mean... it’s um... empathy. This is what the locals do, y’know. This is their way out; this is how they escape their place in the glorious imperial machine... and a fucking grand position it is to appreciate its finer points from too... it all makes sense, y’know Gurgeh; I worked it out.” Za nodded wisely, tapped the side of his head very slowly with one limp finger. “Worked it out,” he repeated. “Think about it; the Culture’s all its...” The same finger made a twirling motion in the air. “...built in glands; hundreds of secretions and thousands of effects, any combination you like and all for free... but the Empire, ah ha!” The finger pointed upwards. “In the Empire you got to pay; escape is a commodity like anything else. And it’s this stuff; drink. Lowers the reaction time, makes the tears come easier...” Za put two swaying fingers to his cheeks “...makes the fists come easier...” Now his hands were clenched, and he pretended to box; jabbing. “...and...” He shrugged. “ eventually kills you.” He looked more or less at Gurgeh. “See?”

Empathy, then... Sadly for Gurgeh, The Culture have more in mind than him just taking part in a great games tournament and by the end of the competition he may well need a very stiff drink.

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