"The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game."
The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks
In the post-scarcity society of the Culture, men and machines live with the opportunity to do anything or nothing, to travel the universe in the great Culture ships with their infinitely complex Minds, to revel in idleness, to choose any subject and pursue it with singleminded zeal. Jernau Gurgeh chose games. He spends his life leaning, playing, and above all, winning, games from all the varied societies now encompassed by the Culture. When a member of Contact's Special Circumstances approaches Gurgeh and asks him to try his hand at a dizzyingly intricate game called Azad, he is tempted. Azad is more than just a game: in a faraway empire, it is intertwined with every aspect of society: careers are made by it; people die and are mutilated because of it; emperors rise and rule by it:
"Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life...the set-up assumes that the game and life are the same thing, and such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing it, they make it so."
SC wants to recruit the Culture's most brilliant gameplayer to act as their representative to the empire, and unfortunately for Gurgeh, a moment of reckless stupidity leaves him with a forced hand. Gurgeh is now a pawn in the Culture's game, and the cards are stacked against him.
A friend of mine has been trying to get me into the Culture books for years. He adores these books as--no, more--passionately than I love the Discworld books, but I admit that until Player of Games, I didn't see the appeal.
I do now.
The Player of Games is a satisfyingly multi-layered story of wheels within wheels, games within games. Through Gurgeh's eyes, the world is something like an Escher drawing: reality may contain the game, but only the game's reflection shows a full view of reality. There are so many layers to the games within the story, and game and reality are inextricably linked.
Outside of this central theme, the story is rich in complex and evocative details, from the society where a labyrinth is used as punishment to a planet whose ecosystem depends upon an eternal wall of flame that travels over it, a visual depiction of destruction and rebirth. Throughout the narrative, the Azadians attempt to redefine truth, action, and intent. There are also plenty of moments of pure fun; for example, when Gurgeh complains to the droid about the protective clothing he has to wear:
"How about a magic amulet to ward off bullets?"
"Are you serious? I mean, if you are there is a passive-sensor impact-shield jewelry set on board."
For Gurgeh, the first shock of Azad culture is gender. Within the Culture, gender is an unimportant, easily modifiable aspect of the self, and its triviality is reflected in Marain, the Culture language:
"Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person's sex in Marain, but they're not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it's brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over."
In contrast, Azad has three genders: male, female, and the dominant "apex" gender, whose reversible vagina transfers sperm from male to female. In a culture where status--and pronouns-- are defined by gender, the standard Azadian gambling penalty of castration takes on a whole new meaning. If the stakes are so high, what can be the appeal of the game? Within the Culture, Gurgeh values the game as a way to "find the measure of himself," but he is discontented in a game with so little risk. As his friend explains,
"You enjoy your life in the Culture, but it can't provide you with sufficient threats; the true gambler needs the excitement of potential loss, even ruin, to feel wholly alive."
In Azad, however, both winning and losing can have devastating real-world consequences, either to oneself or the other player. It creates a zero-sum society, for in a world where everything is part of the game, there is no place for mercy.
Azad creates a world in which victory, ownership, and dominance are everything; to a member of the egalitarian Culture, every aspect of Azadian life looks like slavery. Competition creates a world where nothing can ever be enough:
"Azad itself simply produced an insatiable desire for more victories, more power, more territory, more dominance..."
Just as the pleasure of winning is inextricably tied to causing other to lose, Azadian society ties even sexual gratification to the abasement of others. Although our culture more closely resembles Azad, Gurgeh's Culture eyes provide an sympathetic viewpoint. Despite his strategic prowess, Gurgeh is an innocent; in real-life situations, he has all the street-smarts of a stoned deer on a highway. Gurgeh's fascination with the game far surpasses a simple desire for victory; he sees it as a beautiful, intricate system of unpredictable patterns.(show spoiler)
For Gurgeh to win Azad, he must understand Azad. Yet there isn't much of a step between understanding someone and becoming them. Banks highlights this change via the use of language:
"When Culture people didn't speak Marain for a long time and did speak another language, they were liable to change; they acted differently, they started to think in the other language."
In the case of Azad, thinking in the native language means thinking in terms of sharply-defined genders, in terms of hunting and stalking, winning and losing, possession and humiliation. In one of my favourite quotes in the book, Banks talks about how conquering changes the conqueror:
"The barbarians invade, and are taken over. Not always; some empires dissolve and cease, but many absorb; many take the barbarians in and end up conquering them. They make them live like the people they set out to take over. The architecture of the system channels them, beguiles them, seduces and transforms them, demanding from them what they could not before have given but slowly grow to offer. The empire survives, the barbarians survive, but the empire is no more and the barbarians are nowhere to be found."
I've always had some hardcore issues with the Culture--even the arrogant sense of superiority in their name, the singularity of that article, puts my teeth on edge. At least from the outside, they strike me as self-satisfied, decadent, culturally imperialistic, meddlesome, and self-righteous. Who are they to act as arbiters of justice? The Culture is willing to do truly terrible things, to let the ends justify the means--but they prefer not to get their hands dirty. But, as Player of Games asks, who are they to let the atrocities happen when they have the power to stop them? I live in the U.S., a country that, despite all evidence to the contrary, still generally views itself as the city upon a hill, the policemen of the world. We've seen how well meddling with other countries tends to go, we've seen how we have worn our arrogance as armour and treated "different" and "barbaric" as synonymous, but if there really are intrinsic rights, then there are intrinsic wrongs. How can we sit there idly and let indisputable evil happen?(show spoiler)
One of the hardest aspects of reading this book was realising that I don't believe that a Culture is possible. I want to believe in a world that strives for egalitarianism, where, as Gurgeh tries to explain:
"No, life is not fair. Not intrinsically [...] It's something we can try to make it, though, [...] A goal we can aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have."
I don't believe we will ever reach a post-scarcity future where laws are few and ordered anarchy rules. I don't believe we can ever get to a point where we give up the idea of possession and ownership and debt. I don't believe we can ever create a world where there is a set of universally agreed-upon, irrefutable, objective rules; where breaking those laws does not require the drama of courts and juries, where all disputes end with a unanimous decision, where a "no" is always taken as "no" and retribution and revenge are not even considered. I don't believe in a future where the Culture could exist.
I wish I did.
But as Banks says:
"We are what we do, not what we think."
Music: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Steve Jablonsky's soundtrack to Ender's Game was a perfect accompaniment.
Footnotes: Most of the footnotes are actual textual evidence: there were tons of good quotes in this book, but I didn't keep a quote page, so I stuck them here instead.
 Some of my favourite quotes:
"The truth has already been decided."
"Rules and laws exist only because we take pleasure in breaking them."
"Was all that true?" [...]
"It doesn't matter; he believed it was true."
 I suspect it is not a coincidence that Banks uses the male pronoun to refer to the dominant apices.
 "To lose that which made him what he was."
Yet even in the Culture, a form of castration is used as punishment. In a society where intelligence, skills, and achievements define one, weakening these abilities have a similar effect; as an ex-military drone comments:
"Better I had never been brought into being than foced to wander the Culture forever, knowing what I've lost. They call it compassion to draw my talons and remove my eyes and cast me adrift in a paradise made for others; I call it torture. It's obscene, Gurgeh, it's barbaric, diabolic."
 His complaint is that utopia somehow removes meaning:
"This is not a heroic age...the individual is obsolete. That's why life is so comfortable for us all. We don't matter, so we're safe. No one person can have any real effect anymore."
Even then, he is certainly aware how a rise in status creates a greater potential fall:
"The better I do the worse things get because the more I have to lose."
 As one of the ships explains,
"One may be partially owned by another or others by having to sell one's labor or talents to someone with the means to buy them."