I’ve read one culture novel before – Consider Phlebas – about six years ago. To say I disliked it would probably be an understatement. My memory of it is a bit fuzzy this far on, but the main thing I remember disliking was a complete lack of empathy or fellow feeling for the characters. I just… didn’t care. Not even enough to hate them, because hatred can be compelling. There were definitely other things as well, because that alone isn’t enough to leave me disliking a book so much I never pick up another by the author, but they’ve blurred away into the mists of time. I’ve read a lot since then.
But because it’s been so long, when someone offered to lend me Player of Games, I figured why not. I know my tastes have changed a fair bit since I was 20, so perhaps this would come through on that. A lot of people think the Culture novels are good. I’m probably wrong. And I was. I really, really enjoyed Player of Games. I’m going to read Use of Weapons as my next book, in fact. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. There’s a huge amount about it to recommend, and it definitely gripped me the whole way through, even though it took about a week to read because I’ve been stupid busy. I never felt like I couldn’t be bothered with it, and was coming back from fun, social things thinking “drat, wish I had more time to read”. It’s all really good stuff.
The funny thing is, I still have no empathy for the characters. It just doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that I have no inclination to like Gurgeh, the titular game player, didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book in the slightest. And that is unusual for me.
Partly, of course, it’s just that the rest of the book is so good that it balances out.
If I’m honest, reading the exposition about the Culture – and doing the subsequent thinking that it provokes – is excellent enough that it would balance out an awful lot of sins in character creation, at least for me now. I don’t know if me six years ago felt more strongly about characters, or if she cared less for the exposition in Consider Phlebas, but I definitely found that the worldbuilding here was so overwhelmingly excellent that a lot else wouldn’t have mattered. But before I contradict my past self of several blog posts ago too much (particularly cf. Dune), the other thing Banks has done really well is the plotting. It struck a really nice balance of predictable/formulaic and fun with thoughtful. I did, several times, see where the twist was going to go (though not always), and there are definitely bits of the way the aliens are portrayed that are not unusual… but not always, and the balance is just about right to get comforting familiarity with your exciting drama.
Considering the aliens, I think the most interesting aspect of the world building and the narrative in general for me is how the alien species with which the main character interacts most is portrayed. They’re the Azad Empire, and they are shown to be very different from the utopian, liberal paradise of the Culture. They are fiercely hierarchical, power-hungry, dominating, violent, oppressive… all the negative things. As the story progresses, these traits become more and more visible, to the point, frankly, of caricature. And this is where the interest starts for me. Because I honestly cannot discern the extent to which our view of these aliens, this overblown, dramatic, damning and almost nonsensically awful picture we get, so very much feeling like Culture propaganda, is meant to be through the lens of the character’s view – either the narrator or Gurgeh. The narrator does have moments when they address the reader directly. These are very clearly marked, very short and tend to serve a clear purpose. Outside of these, while we know there is a narrator, they slip into a very impersonal third person, much like that of any book without an acknowledged narrating voice. And there’s nothing really that I got from the book that felt like it was telling me “this isn’t reality, this is reality as the Culture sees it“. I’d hope that was the intention, I really would, because if not, Banks has created a very stereotyped alien-baddie race without a shade of self-awareness, and the quality of the rest of the book suggests he’s better than that. But there’s nothing marking it. The only clue is those breaks into a distinctive voice, but they vanish so completely that it’s hard to reconcile the biases of the rest of the book with them. And even if it is a self-aware decision to make the society be seen by the reader as the Culture sees them, are we seeing them as the narrator does, or as Gurgeh the character does? It’s an important distinction.
As I said, the extent of the caricatured portrayal grows as the book goes on, and this mirrors the changes in Gurgeh’s temperament, as he sinks slowly deeper into the culture of the game he’s playing (to avoid giving too much away, I’ll leave it there) and of the aliens whose world he’s on. So a part of me thinks that if we’re seeing the aliens through anyone’s viewpoint, it must be his, because the progression from seeing them as “different but valid” through to “crude and violent but still plausible and identifiable with” and then to “basically evil and sadistic” seems so very closely linked to the changes we see in Gurgeh’s character and behaviour. They match very very closely, I think, his growing detachment, but also growing awareness of their culture. One particular thing which strikes me about this interpretation, is the amount to which our view of the aliens changes right around the time that the Culture ambassador to them – who had, earlier in the book, been a voice in support of the merits of the aliens’ culture, at least partially – is revealed not to be, himself, of the Culture at all. This, I think, is an incredibly damning moment for our view of the aliens… but could only be so if our viewpoint has an investment in the Culture. If Ambassador Za’s credibility drops, and is mirrored by a strong change in portrayal of the aliens’ nature from his own descriptions of them, surely our point of view must by then have been solidly rooted in a Culture mindset, and particularly Gurgeh’s, since it’s he who gains this knowledge fresh.
I could go on about this for a while, since I really don’t have a solid answer. I think Banks is too competent a writer to have given us such a straw man as an antagonist culture, but I do wish he’d made it a bit plainer that he was playing with our viewpoint so I didn’t have to dither about it so much.
There is another thing which makes me suspect it’s a deliberate decision, and that’s how the narrator discusses the different languages involved. The narrator and Gurgeh are both native speakers of “Marain”, which is supposedly brilliant and wonderful and complex (and incidentally gender neutral), whereas Eächic is dismissed as just an evolved language that does not thus have the perfection of Marain and which, by its deficiencies, causes its speakers to fall into certain patterns of (bad) thinking. Very Sapir-Whorf. This… smugness about the language is a very clear bit of “us and them” – though it occurs in the bits with narratorial voice and so I’m not sure how much I feel I can connect it to the rest of the story.
More interestingly, with the language, Banks has chosen to use gendered pronouns in English “translation” of Marain, rather than avoiding it and picking one, like Leckie has. I can see why he’s done this, since he describes characters in the Culture who change their physical sexual characteristics, and he wants to make clear which phase they are in at certain points in the book… but at the same time, it feels strange to me reading it with the knowledge that he’s imagining, and trying to have us imagine, that these people speak to themselves without marking this distinction at all. And then we meet the Azad, who have three genders. The third gender – or “apex” – is culturally dominant over the other two, and so Banks has the narrator explain that the pronoun they are given is culturally appropriate for the language being “translated” into. So, in my book, the apex gender is pronouned as “he”. Banks clearly marks when he’s talking about the subordinate male gender (also pronouned “he”) rather than the apices, but it still… eh. I think Leckie handled her pronouns better, though I do acknowledge she’s trying to achieve something very different with them. I think Banks could have at least picked a third pronoun… just “they”, even? Because either the native language does make a tripartite distinction and we should reflect that in the story to get our heads around it better… or he should stick to the “lens of the Culture” thing and have no gendered pronouns throughout to reflect Marain. Trying to crowbar it into English two-gender pronouning just feels clumsy, in a book that’s otherwise fairly skilfully managed.
One of the things which I do think is handled skilfully is the tone. It has a strong sense of coldness and detachment – which I don’t normally like – but this is paired with the growing detachment and abandonment of self of the lead character, and so it actually helps us follow the story emotionally, even if we cannot connect to the character himself that way. I think it’s a really good choice, and I suspect that while it did make Gurgeh quite unrelatable, that unrelatability actually is an important part of the story.
I’ve rambled a lot about this one, far more than I usually do, but it’s because there’s a lot in there that bears additional thought and discussion. I finished it last week (before I headed off to a folk festival for four and a half days) and even though I’ve been busy and tired and distracted, I still found myself having moments wondering about different aspects of what went on. I want to talk about it a great deal. I know I’m going to keep thinking about it. And it has fueled me to continue on my current actual science fiction run, because this for me is what good science fiction is – it makes you think about the world it’s made, and about the story it tells, and keep thinking, keep finding new things, even after you’ve closed the last page and moved on. And it does it marvellously. All the while being, as one of my friends put it, “all about a sad man who plays space Yu-Gi-Oh!”. If that isn’t a high accolade, I don’t know what is.