THE PLAYER OF GAMES discussion (The Culture group read)

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THE PLAYER OF GAMES discussion (The Culture group read)

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1kgodey
Redigerat: jan 21, 2014, 11:31am

   

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 – spoilers here. Both are necessary because the spoiler tag feature is new and doesn't work for everyone yet.

The Culture group read: Wiki page | Organisational thread

2HanGerg
feb 3, 2014, 9:22am

Ok, we're doing this one in February aren't we? Just say the word and I'll begin when others do. I'm working my way through an excellent but very dense biography of Virginia Woolf in the meantime, so I'll keep plugging away at that until others are ready. I'm looking forward to this; this was my first Culture book, and still my of my favourites...

3majkia
feb 3, 2014, 10:15am

I'm hoping to get to this in February, but it won't be for a bit yet.

4kgodey
feb 3, 2014, 12:26pm

I didn't plan on assigning any specific time to any of the books; I figured we'd just discuss them as we read them. I plan to read this one in February, though.

5majkia
feb 5, 2014, 6:27pm

I started this book this morning. So different from Consider Phlebas!

6richardderus
feb 5, 2014, 8:34pm

>5 majkia: Thank goodness for that! I wasn't at all enamored of Consider Phlebas. I'll try this one before giving up.

7Jarandel
feb 6, 2014, 12:28pm

I read it long enough ago that I don't remember much except that I liked it, probably one of the first books I picked at my local library after becoming interested in science-fiction.

8PiyushC
feb 8, 2014, 3:26pm

The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks

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?

4/5

9majkia
feb 9, 2014, 8:02am

I'm a bit more than halfway. This is SOOOO different from book 1. And really a comedy of manners! Funny!

10vwinsloe
feb 9, 2014, 8:17am

I read Consider Phlebas for the first time AFTER I read The Player of Games. Phlebas didn't measure up. It reminded me very much of the not uncommon situation in which an author publishes a book that does very well, so the publisher goes back quickly and digs up a prior book (published or unpublished) for wide release to cash in on the author's good publicity.

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.

11imyril
feb 9, 2014, 11:32am

9> A comedy of manners - that's spot on! :)

12elenchus
feb 9, 2014, 1:14pm

>6 richardderus:

Based on the above impressions, I'm curious as to whether Player is a better read for you, richardderus, as compared to Phlebas.

13majkia
feb 9, 2014, 3:26pm

#12 by elenchus> Finished it this afternoon. This is the first series (I can remember anyway) where two consecutive books in a series are so very different in tone and feel). Of course the first one was presented from the viewpoint of a character who hated the Culture. This one from the viewpoint of a Culture man looking at a totally different sort of society. And yes. I thought definitely a comedy of manners.

14imyril
feb 13, 2014, 9:51am

I enjoyed this (again). It's been a long time since I'd read Player of Games, and I'd forgotten pretty much everything. Reading it so soon after Phlebas, this opening trio (I hesitate to say trilogy, as that implies continuity and arcs that aren't there) do make more sense as companion volumes.

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.

15elenchus
feb 13, 2014, 10:12am

Fascinating ruminations, imyril. I'm not reading the entire Culture series, but lurking here even for those novels I won't read myself, and these themes you identify are definitely among those I'm most intrigued by within Banks's writings.

Curious if you could clarify how "the actions of individuals do count" when "no one person can make a difference any more".

16imyril
feb 13, 2014, 3:19pm

Ah sorry, that was as clear as mud, wasn't it? :) Let me try that again...

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!

17ronincats
feb 13, 2014, 11:57pm

Okay, skipping the comments above to say that, although the library STILL hasn't hasn't gotten me the copy of Consider Phlebas that I requested on January 5th when I got back home (and a copy was listed as available in the system), the copy of Player of Games that I requested last week is waiting for me at the library. So I am just going to skip the first book completely.

18majkia
feb 14, 2014, 7:13am

they aren't really related so no real problem skipping it.

19HanGerg
feb 14, 2014, 8:11am

Lots of really intriguing comments here! I'm looking forward to getting to this one in the second half of Feb, and this interesting discussion is really whetting my appetite for a re-read!
#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.

20elenchus
feb 14, 2014, 9:16am

>16 imyril:

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.

21kgodey
feb 25, 2014, 2:07am

I finally read my Culture book that I allotted to February, The Player of Games. I enjoyed this one more than Consider Phlebas, although this isn't really a happy book, either. It was great to see more varied drone characters, and I enjoyed that we get to see the world through a Culture citizen's eyes. I thought it was very interesting how the Culture is a post-scarcity egalitarian society, but there are still those like Gurgeh who feel stifled by the lack of stakes.

More thoughts coming later...

22HanGerg
feb 25, 2014, 8:21am

I've just started this and will chip in soon with a few thoughts!

23HanGerg
Redigerat: mar 5, 2014, 7:47am

OK, I'm done! Initial thoughts.... I really like how Banks really carefully thinks through a character's point of view and cultural assumptions; cultural assumptions and implicit beliefs and values being one of the themes I guess. So, for example, when Gurgeh is in a car with only a human driver, and he's really anxious about the car crashing - obviously as he is so used infallible robots doing tasks like that, so the alternative seems really risky to him. Similarly, I love the way the drones have to explain the idea of a dominant and weaker gender to him. (I like the implied gender equality of that too; the fluidity of genders is a really interesting background aspect of the Culture).

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 One of the interesting aspects I noticed this time, is that there is a very slight hint that a Mind is controlling him in his final game with the emperor - the way he goes into a kind of trance when he is playing, and how he feels a mysterious something leaving him just as the point when he realises he has won. Maybe I'm imagining it, but it definitely felt like that to me. I didn't really buy the official explanation about the Minds being really certain that he could win with only a few years learning the game behind him. . Related to the spoiler point, I think the book has some really interesting things to say about the relevance of organic life in this brave new world of sentient machines. Really, it's only a quirk of how Azad functions as a society which means that Gurgeh must be the Player - when we know any one of the vastly more powerful Minds that really run the Culture could have easily beaten their finest player. So, this goes back somewhat to the themes of the first book, and the conflict with the Idirans, as in a way they had a point when they were worried about what a culture run by machines would become like. Ok, these are my first, only vaguely coherent thoughts!

24imyril
mar 5, 2014, 5:47pm

23> I agree, I didn't find Gurgeh particularly likeable. He's aloof and arrogant, but not to the extent of being an unpleasant companion - just not a character it's easy to love. I preferred the drones although I sort of suspected who Flere-Imsaho was, and didn't pick up on your hint of Gurgeh possibly being controlled during the final Game.

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.

25majkia
mar 5, 2014, 7:53pm

I'm enjoying the fact I like the drones better than the humans. They have better personalities, and I love that irony.

26Sakerfalcon
mar 6, 2014, 6:00am

I too really enjoyed the drones in this book. I also found the game tactics and the way Gurgeh rises through the levels to be strangely compelling.

27imyril
mar 6, 2014, 3:24pm

I enjoyed the way you spectate the games without ever really understanding how they work, too. Spectating by metaphor!

28kgodey
mar 6, 2014, 4:16pm

Is the "unlikeable protagonist" a series-long thing? Horza wasn't that likeable, and Gurgeh was even less so.

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.

29imyril
Redigerat: mar 6, 2014, 4:29pm

28> I found Zakalwe more likeable. He's a complete smart-ass (and a ruthless agent), but I'm a soft touch for competence.

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 ;)

30elenchus
mar 7, 2014, 10:45am

>28 kgodey:

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).

31kgodey
mar 7, 2014, 11:54am

#29-30: Good to know that Use of Weapons and Matter go into the role of humanity a little more. I'm sure there are malcontents that don't agree with the philosophy of Contact; I wonder what they do? Leave the Culture, maybe, seduced by other "less-developed" cultures like Gurgeh almost was, probably.

32elenchus
mar 7, 2014, 12:21pm

There is the Peace Faction within the Culture, and Banks includes an amusing set piece in Matter in which a PFer meets an SC agent in a bar, and he proceeds to complain to her about how SC taints the principles and reputation of the Culture to everyone else, how can she stand herself, etc etc. It's Banks taking the piss on a group who's position I assumed he supports, generally, but can't really abide all the whinging.

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.

33Annalietta
mar 11, 2014, 1:16pm

Oh, I enjoyed rereading this so much. This was the first book I read (many years ago) of Banks and it got me hooked instantly but for some reason I've not reread it before now.

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) At no point of the story does Gurgeh do anything on his own initiative (that I remember). SC manipulates him every step of the way and when he starts getting fascinated by the Azad society (perhaps because this is a society where individuals matter?) they pull him back in the fold by showing him the beastly sides of the Azad. In the end the experience has not even changed him that much. He has a bit more empathy for others, but that is it. To me one of the points of this story is that if you remove the need for individuals to take responsibility and make important decisions, you also create individuals that are passive and basically self-centered. I feel sorry for Gurgeh, he is frustrated and in need, but he doesn't even know himself what it is he needs.

34elenchus
Redigerat: mar 11, 2014, 2:05pm

That's an interesting observation about the implied conclusion relating to the role of individuals. I venture to add the lesson applies equally well to AI (Mind) individuals as it does to individuals of organic species. If so, I wonder about some possible implications:

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.

35ronincats
mar 29, 2014, 8:46pm

Finally got through my copy (the library's copy) of The Player of Games--not because I didn't get involved with the story, but because I had so much other stuff going on at the same time. I thought this book was very well done. I knew who the narrator was in its entirety by the second interjection--it was telegraphed pretty strongly. I think the musings on choice vs. chance by the machine in one of these pauses addresses some of the issues above. Once we really got into the game, I thought the pace picked up substantially.