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A Review of _The Player of Games_
A second major implausibility, I think, is the course of Gurgeh's games. He almost invariably surges back from at or beyond the brink of disaster. The resilience of his style is part of the point, but Banks pushes that too far. Perhaps it's a mere semantic error, the difference between a hopeless position and a position that merely appears to be hopeless because its true structure is not understood. But Banks describes the former, and therefore the many comebacks sawed on my suspension of disbelief. When grandmasters play chess, the first mistake loses. Azad is more complex than chess, so it's understandable that even the masters can't play a flawless game. But Gurgeh makes way too many mistakes. He could not realistically have won his first match in the manner he did, nor the match with Bermoiya (unless I've confused that match with another). Letting his comebacks be less implausible wouldn't have affected the story; this was just a pedestrian failure of hard-SF rigor. As such, perhaps I should not devote an entire paragraph to it, but it recurs, and I daresay is even emphasized, and it annoyed the heck out of me. Boo.
The novel's virtues are its beautifually rendered setting, its pacing, and its climax, which is spectacular and mostly fitting, though Nicosar is cut from the same cardboard as Gurgeh, to deleterious effect. The fireworks are pretty, however, and the punch-line satisfying, though I wish Banks had not diluted its impact by the obnoxious foreshadowing preludes to the three acts. I'm reasonably confident that I would have guessed the punch-line anyway, but I would have liked to have been allowed to be proud of it. I *think* a better climax could have been written, if Nicosar had been allowed to choose one instead of having one dictated to him by either the Culture or (in my view) the author, but that, perhaps, would have been a different novel entirely, so I can't reasonably complain.
But enough carping about opportunities missed. What does _The Player of Games_ teach us about life?
Its moral, I think--the only quotation which I felt moved to note in my common-place book--is this fragment: ""human nature"--the phrase they used whenever they had to justify something inhuman and unnatural." This remark is wholly appropriate to the book; it is also false (utopian class). (Banks has made clear in interviews that he knows this.) The cruel and perverse dominance behavior of Azadians, and of humans unfortunate enough to have not been born into the Culture, is a natural, which is to say an evolutionarily determined, outgrowth of the dominance behaviors of most of our fellow mammals. Humans, with our quantitatively if not qualitatively higher level of awareness, are able to recognize, and therefore to fear, a broader range of threats to our power. When we recognize a threat, adrenalin happens. When we recognize a threat we can't do anything about, adrenalin happens anyway. We must fight or flee. It may be that evolution might have selected for flight, but it didn't; it selected for aggression. It is natural, therefore, that the aggressors will aggress when they feel threatened, even if it does them no good. That's why we, humans and Azadians, violate the weak even when they are innocent. Our moral duty is to *transcend* that human nature, not to recover some utopian human nature which we have supposedly lost. Rousseau was wrong, and SF writers would do more good if they dealt with the fact rather than recapitulating the myth.
Fortunately, Banks does deal with the fact: the Culture's superiority is based not on morality but on technology, of which the morality is just a consequence. *First* conquer scarcity and neurochemistry; *then* the siblinghood of persons will follow, dare I say, naturally. Arguably that falls prey to the opposite utopianism of hard-core technophilia, but that utopianism at least has not already been disproved, and it is a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. It's by no means the only potential starting-point for plausible SF, but it is one, and Banks has chosen it and does well with it. That the novel's rhetoric sometimes contradicts its point is not confusion or hypocrisy, but art.
I still wish that the novel had dealt more richly with its nominal subject, the players and the played. Perhaps the later Culture novels do; I have intentionally written this in the ignorant moment. But on its own, _The Player of Games_ remains a beautiful, thoughtful SF novel, well worth reading for inspiration as well as entertainment.