Monday, March 6, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

Dossier: Banks, Iain M. The Player of Games [Macmillan, 1988]

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Statist dystopia.

Executive Summary: The Player of Games centers on Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a champion game player who has grown bored with his life of leisure. Enter Special Circumstances, one of the Culture's two clandestine services. Through some dirty tricks, SC manages to recruit Gurgeh for a mission to the Empire of Azad, a highly stratified and oppressive society where social and political power are determined by a grand competition, also called Azad. Thus Gurgeh's mission is to win the game, seize power and dismantle the Empire's brutal dystopia.  

Dystopian Visions: There are two forms of stratification in Azad. The first is a gender-based caste system, in which the "apex" sex rules over the males and females, each of whom are essentially slaves. Social and political standing among the apexes is then determined by performance in the game of Azad, which takes place once every six years. The game itself, however, is rigged to give advantage to those players who most ruthlessly embody the predatory values of the ruling elite. Thus the institution of the game itself facilities that entrenchment and replication of Azad's brutally oppressive state system.    

Utopian Undercurrents: Banks juxtaposes dystopian Azad to the utopian Culture, where there are no hierarchies, castes or even strict genders. Without scarcity or hoarding, individuals are free to pursue lives of leisure; and they can even change their biological sex through self-regulated chemical processes. 

Level of Hell: Fifth. Azad is a pretty miserable place for all except the elite of the elite. 

LegacyThe Player of Games didn't exactly light up the field of science fiction when it first came out, but people who read it certainly recognized it for what it was: a rich, complex and deeply political  masterpiece of space opera. Over time its reputation has grown alongside that of its author.

In Retrospect: It is in this novel, far more than any other in the series, where Banks articulates the Culture as a post-scarcity utopia. This is achieved, primarily, by juxtaposing its creature comforts with the dystopia of Azad, whose social cleavages and axes of stratification are in essence amplifications of our own. In this sense, The Player of Games owes a debt to Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, which also presents a form of techno-anarchism as alternative to the embedded inequalities of the class-stratified society. One could also argue that Azad and the Culture each embody one contrasting element of "civilization" in Huxley's Brave New World: the cruelties of eugenic stratification in Azad, and the postscarcity leisure society in the Culture. 

Like each of its predecessors, The Player of Games draws its power by looking past the binary of utopianism-by subtraction. Utopian though it may be, when the Culture is faced with a society it views as inferior, it has no compunction about interfering, even if that means destroying Azad's culture and replacing it with its own. One notes that this is also the moral basis of liberal interventionism, which Banks often opposed in real life. Thus, a conundrum--should we laud the Culture for dismantling an oppressive system, or castigate it for infringing on the sovereignty of a less-developed society? What's ultimately fascinating to me about The Player of Games, and indeed about the Culture series as a whole, is how Banks elides the neat, tidy answers--leaving the reader both sympathetic to and deeply uncomfortable with how the Culture acts on its "superiority." 


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.

[Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier microreview.]