THE PLAYER OF GAMES discussion (The Culture group read)
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The Culture - a human/machine symbiotic society - has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game...a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life - and very possibly his death.
This thread is for the discussion of The Player of Games, the second book set in the Culture universe.
Posts with spoilers should be marked SPOILERS at the beginning, and the spoilers should be placed within <spoiler>spoilers here</spoiler> tags like this –
The Culture group read: Wiki page | Organisational thread
The Player of Games is the second book in the Culture Series, the second in a series of ten. As I have already mentioned earlier in my review of Consider Phlebas, the first book in the series, I am reading this series as part of a year long read
Now, while I didn't care much for Book 1 in the series, Book 2 was an entirely different matter altogether. For one, the title of the book is exactly what the book is about; the protagonist, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, is a Player of Games, nothing more, nothing less. There is a hint of Ender's Game, but no more than just a hint. The games themselves, set in a world far too much in future, are no high tech video games, but Board games! Strategy based Board and card games! There is less action of the traditional kind, less bloodshed, and the book is much better for that. While game playing is the premise of the book, from beginning to the end, the change in the protagonist is more fascinating. The book is brilliant in that it doesn't lack congruity at any point of time, the culture of Culture is better understood in this book and so is the place of humans and machines in their culture.
There is travel to a distant civilisation, interaction with other humanoid species, and perhaps the most exhaustive game in the universe. The "Minds" in this book continue to be all knowing, benevolent. I could be wrong, but I suspect an Assimovish twist to the story in its latter parts.
Humans in Culture are genetically enhanced, with in-built drug glands, ability to pass food and drinks through, easy sex changes, growing back of parts, among other things. Yet they need to pee, sounds quite wasteful for a civilisation like Culture, doesn't it?
In other words, Phlebas was not nearly as well written, and the ideas and world building were not yet fully formed or fleshed out. That was my view, anyway.
Based on the above impressions, I'm curious as to whether Player is a better read for you, richardderus, as compared to Phlebas.
Phlebas introduced the Culture from the outside, and dwelt long and hard on whether it's relationship with technology was entirely healthy. Player gives us a look from the inside, and let's us peek at another civilization from the Culture's perspective. It also introduces the idea that the Culture by its nature doesn't necessarily produce the sort of people who make good agents provocateurs, and makes us aware that they use mercenaries to do the dirty work (setting up Use of Weapons beautifully).
I'm fascinated by several ideas that thread through: that freedom to do anything leads to shallow encounters/lifestyles (Yay) or boredom and disillusion (Gurgeh - but his ennui on Chiark also reminds me of Fal Ngeestra from Phlebas). That language shapes thought to the extent that Flere becomes concerned when Gurgeh stops speaking Marain, because it leaves him vulnerable to the Azadian mindset. That it's okay to meddle for the greater good, but the very nature of the civilization undermines your ability to do so (and would sometimes disapprove, much as they did of the Idiran war - this internal tension with Contact / SC never goes away). That the machines are the true moral arbiters of the Culture - it is the Rascal and Flere who openly disapprove of Azad; Gurgeh is more open-minded and less judgmental from the outset (e.g. he doesn't react strongly to the gladiatorial style fight to the death that Za takes him to), and although there's some slow- burning rage in there that gets teased out, he is pretty cold-blooded about the 'delights' of Hamin's estate.
There's also a thread that runs counter to most traditional scifi / fantasy, running through Phlebas and picked up - if ultimately disproven as a thesis - by Gurgeh, which is that no one person can make a difference any more (one of the reasons he cites for his state of mind on Chiark). This was completely true for Horza, and arguably it's what trips up Nicosar at the end - the Culture has no capital, no heart to rip out, no cultural centre to tear down. It's too big, too amorphous. So one person can't really dent it. But the Culture can - and does - affect others; and the actions of the individual do count. I'm curious to see how this plays out in Use of Weapons - whether it remains a theme - as again, it's been so long since I last read it that I don't really recall any of it.
Curious if you could clarify how "the actions of individuals do count" when "no one person can make a difference any more".
Gurgeh observes early in the piece that part of his frustration stems from the fact that one person can't make a difference any more in the Culture. This chimed with me as reflecting Horza's situation in Phlebas - he is only one tiny facet in an enormous war, and ultimately no more than a footnote. His efforts make no difference. Coming back to Gurgeh - he has stature, but the most he can hope to achieve is to become even better known for being good at gaming (e.g. by being the first Culture player to get a full web in Stricken).
Chamlis-Amalkney observes that this is where Contact come in - they try to make a difference (especially SC) - although they frequently have to do it through non-Culture mercenaries, because of the nature of the work required. In the case of SC (and especially the mercenaries), one person can and does make a difference - that's their entire raison d'etre. Crucially to me, though, they're not making that difference to the Culture - they're making a difference to another civilisation (typically less mature). To the Culture, a lot of these civilisations are still basically footnotes, much like Horza.
Ultimately Gurgeh, by working with Contact and going to Azad, does get to be the one person that makes a difference - again, outside of the Culture - and he finds it isn't all it's cracked up to be (it doesn't actually make him any happier in the end). I felt quite sorry for him in the end (even though I don't much like him as a character).
...which leads me to my other rumination - do any of Banks's (human) protagonists end up happy? I suddenly can't remember!
#17 Yes, do just jump in at this one Roni, this is a really good book to start with, as the Culture is explained pretty throughly here.
Ah, I could see a number of ways to reconcile your seemingly-contradictory statements, but that wasn't one I'd have pinpointed. I'll keep that in mind as I read through, clearly Special Circumstances are a key consideration in Banks's understanding of his universe, this puts an interesting spin on it. In this case, the Culture really isn't avoiding the dilemma of modern democracy since the League of Nations or UN, when faced with non-democratic adversaries.
Again, very intriguing! I've purchased both Matter and Surface Detail, and will have more to ponder when I get through them. But what you write meshes with my memories of the other titles I've read.
More thoughts coming later...
I think this reading confirmed my initial reading in that I still don't really like Gurgeh as a central character. He feels oddly passive and cold, despite seemingly yearning for a life where more is at stake. I think this is deliberate on Bank's part, as he is painted as a character that might fall for the charms of a society such as Azad's. Maybe it's just my cultural bias coming out, but I couldn't really grasp what he saw in it when he did begin to get seduced - it was clearly a pretty barbaric and unfair society, and so Gurgeh's ambiguous feelings towards it didn't always ring true for me.
OK, I'm going to attempt to do spoiler stuff now, so fingers crossed it works
I do find it fascinating that it sometimes feels the Culture created the Minds so humanity could goof off, and the Minds keep humans around because they're entertaining (explicitly called out in Use of Weapons) and because other (less developed) civilizations can't / won't deal with machines, so for Contact they're sort of essential. But they're not setting policy or even seeing the big picture (except Referers) - like Gurgeh, they're pawns.
General thoughts: It's interesting that the Culture is utopian in many ways – no scarcity, people can do whatever they want (no central laws) and be whoever they want to be, but humans feel purposeless. Whatever they can do, the Minds can do better, except in rare cases. Why even choose to be human/limited by being organic at that point? I'm sure the Culture has the technology to turn humans into cyborgs, or something like that.
I think your point on humanity is absolutely on the nose for Player of Games. Use of Weapons explores a little more how humans are critical to SC. (And offers the perspective that being human is just a lot of fun, so why not? The malcontents can join Contact ;)
There's a line in Matter implying that a specific Mind in the story originated as a human personality. I'd understood that was not the rule for Minds, but I suppose it doesn't surprise me it's one possible path. If true, then there's an option to those born human. But as imyril notes, there are reason to remain human, albeit augmented (and I'll bet there's a subculture or two, religious or not, which attempts to put constraints around such augmentation, similar to the LoTek's of Gibson's Sprawl series).
There's quite a bit in Matter about how SC and Contact differ in their methods and approach to Culture's relations with other civilisations. I'm still working my way through that, so I'll say more in that discussion thread.
Contrary to some of you, I quite like Gurgeh, but he is certainly not your standard protagonist. Agree with Horza or not, he was at least passionate about something, he was an active part of the story and was taking initiative. Gurgeh is passive, an observer, sorrounding himself with people who are experiencing all the fun and adventuring the Culture can offer, but they aren't making a difference to anyone but themselves.
SPOILER (I hope this works)
1 - Minds need to do more than merely follow orders, or become as passive / self-centred as any organic individual, like Gurgeh. Presumably this falls into their preferences, anyway, but it implies that autonomy and freedom is thoroughly-implied in Culture. Interestingly, I assume this is good not only for individual preferences, but also for the net effectiveness of Culture: it works better when individuals collaborate, while retaining individual autonomy. That is, not merely a moral argument, but a pragmatic one, which seems right up the alley of Minds.
2 - If we assume Minds need humans, that is can't run Culture on their own for their own purposes as well as it can be run with humans, then this lesson also provides a constraint on AI dominance of organic life. In essence, Banks's argument against SkyNet.
From notes above, it would appear the assumption about Minds needing humans is not directly addressed in Player of Games, but >29 imyril: hints it is addressed squarely in other novels.