Sunday, April 4, 2010

Culture reread II: The Player of Games

-After reading it the first time my view was that it was very strong, best of the Culture series in terms of plot, stand-out scenes, themes and setting. Reading it a second time, I'm still impressed. Overall this is a very strong, very well-constructed piece, and shows enormous improvement from Consider Phlebas. The prose is top-notch for one thing, it's always competent and frequently very nicely written. There's a lot more humor and little side moments, while the grotesque and tragic sequences also come across more effectively. There's not the proliferation of unnecessary incidents, characterization is a lot better constructed, and the main theme of Culture or anti-Culture emerges with a lot more nuance.

-The plot has the premise of getting a unique person to a designated location so he can do his unique thing. Step three: profit! To this extent it's similar in layout to Consider Phlebas, and the 'present narrative' for Use of Weapons. What makes it interesting and much more satisfying than Consider Phlebas is how the real meaning of the story emerges slowly. Gurgeh is the central character but he's a pawn, not the leading player, until after the fact the final antagonist knows more of what's going on than he does. The machines around him know everything, but pose as less informed. The drone and Za seem like borderline incompetent instead of hardened professionals, and so forth. Reading through this again, I was pleased to find the big twist holds up pretty well. It's reasonable that the masquerade could unfold as it did, there's a clear coherence behind it, and while it's clever it's not so elaborate as to be unbelievable or just absurd. I'm perhaps most struck by the irony of Flere-Imsaho endlessly complaining to Gurgeh about having to put on the idiot bulky drone costume to under-represent itself to Azad, while it is in fact an active SC drone, Mawhrin-Skel, and later on openly threatens the Emperor. It's a guise that's really about fooling Gurgeh, and it works both to drive real tension into the plot and undercut much of Gurgeh's ego.

-The story has a slow first third, naturally. Just watching some talented guy play games and get slowly caught up in the mission to Azad. Much of the pleasure in this the first time was seeing what daily life in the Culture was like, how this kind of high-tech, low-stokes, pro-hedonist lifestyle played out. That was replicated this time, although I had a lot more criticism of Banks' societal model.

-I haven't seen much published critical analysis of Banks' work, for the most part "the scholarship of science fiction" focuses more on Dick or Gibson. One piece I did encounter, though, almost a year ago was Sherryl Vint's Bodies of Tomorrow, which had a chapter on the Culture. She was critical of it as an idealization of liberal humanism, showing a type of absolute embodiment of freedom, autonomy of the self and nonharmful hierarchy. In particular, she pointed out some issues with the politics of the body, the way it promises great diversity of bodies, but reinscribes a form of normality.

My rereading in part had this in mind, and there are ways that the life of the Culture seemed overly restrained, overly conventional. Mostly human in appearance, frequently switching between sexes, but with these taken as binaries that are shifted from. Glanding for different types of drugs, lots of sex and petty gossip related to that, flourishing of artistic forms and hobbies. There are enormously fun and interesting things in here, but as a view of how immortals would live their lives it feels a bit lacking. At points I'd imagine it's more like the society that Banks would like to hang with than an extrapolation for a polity really functioning, in terms of what people would really develop to. I think it should be more alien, more different in terms of what's physically the norm, how people think, what they spend their time on. Certainly portraying the Culture as the rare utopia that's not just an extension of current ideologies, and that would actually be fun to live in, is a worthy project. I think it could have been shown as a safe, benign place without being quite so familiar. On the human end of things, I'd say the drones and Minds come across a lot better. I'm also aware of--in a later book, I believe--there's mention of Cultureites spiralling through different fads of bodies, in some cases being wildly different. The series just happens to be set in an era where the social custom is towards much more conventional things. Right. That's a bit unsatisfying creatively, in similar reasons as the whole question of why Banks populated his cosmos with so many humanoids. I'd say Greg Egan is a lot better at imagining the strange forms a group of immortal transhumans would get up to, from the maniac effort to prevent boredom in Permutation City to unconventional mental forms in Disapora. In 'Player' past a certain point the Culture doesn't seem that innovative a social construct for Banks to have imagined.

-Anyway, even if Banks' portrayal here is a bit drab, bringing up this sort of question is a major accomplishment. What also keeps a good sense of momentum and interest going is Gurgeh. I see him as a very interesting figure, a specialist dissatisfied from his specialty, sort of dancing around his own boredom with existence. "I have no beliefs" he says at one point, and means it, because in many ways he's normalized the Culture's conditions as the way things are. He appears at first as relatively decadent and amoral--his willingness to cheat to gain enduring fame, his using of slight power to taunt an enthusiastic fan also standing out this time--but he is in fact shown to have a strong ethical grounding. If he's no better than the fact that he was born into the Culture, that does give him certain values and norms that are better than the Empire--or modern day people. Although it's not entirely an advantage. I was somewhat troubled by his reflective judgement of Azad on first hearing of them as barbarians--this before he knew anything about their politics or ethical transgressions. Just because they're a distant, unknown and less technologically advanced society, they're judged as basically inferior. One of the stronger moments of imperial psychology in the Culture, most of the more extended descriptions attempt to downplay that.

-He becomes a more intriguing figure though after encountering Azad. Partly because of this own initial fascination with the society. The conviction that the drone is characterizing too harshly, a fetishistic fascination with the uniforms, a vague admiration of Azad's discipline in contrast to the Culture's irregularity. An appreciation of their strength. All rather fascist, really.

-One of the really interesting things about the late saga is Gurgeh's own ambivalent relation to events. He clearly becomes a lot more intense and ruthless after Flere-Imsaho shows him the darker side of Azadian life, and it remains an open question how much of that is his repugnance over their exploitation and how much him taking on characteristics of the society. Clearly he's appalled by the sociopathic elements in Azad and wants to strike against them, but in so doing he's taking on elements of a predatory, competitive, ruthless atmosphere. Certainly by the end of the story he's quite burned out, whether that's because of his own actions, those he saw, the things Azad did, the things SC did, is left pleasantly ambiguous.

-Nicosar is an interesting figure. First time through I just really noticed him with the final game, here I was more alert of his appearances throughout. Shows a sense of humor about his position, very intelligent, put in an impossible position. Still not sympathetic, though.
-In a slightly irreverent note, I wonder if there's much written slash fanfiction on Nicosar/Gurgeh. There's that direct talk about them being through the game closer than lovers, plus the whole "Don't lie to me."/"Nicosar, I would never lie to you." Why should the Doctor/Master Foeyay be the only British SF that gets all the attention? More generally, I wonder if there's a deliberate point here. Didn't someone mention early in the novel mention that Gurgeh (atypically) hadn't switched into female bodies ever, or taken a male lover. And there is that odd moment where at his departure party he sees ten of his former lovers, and wonders if it's significant than six of them have gone over to male form for an extended period. For the most part Gurgeh's sexuality here is characterized negatively--his refusal to accept the sadistic decadence of the court or even be attracted to it--but in this case there seems some deliberate subtext, particularly as Nicosar refers to Gurgeh's Culture-writ-boardgame as seduction and pornography.

-The effector-type gear on the ceiling, "could be Homomda stuff". What is it with the Homodans and showing up for side tangents in the last forty pages of the novel? I'm not really sure this is necessary. On the one hand it could be part of a gradual setup for real competition to the Culture, building a lose arc of introduction. On the other hand I'm not sure if a Cultureverse Black Council is really necessary or desirable, and it seems to undermine the core narrative here a little. The eventual revelation shows everything to be carefully controlled by the SC, a tribute to the foresight of the Minds. Except for the very end, where some advanced tech by an unknown and not previously indicated group in the story makes things actually come down to the wire. I think it would have been a stronger piece if it didn't have this element.

-For the Empire of Azad itself, it was pretty well depicted. A blend of socio-political elements, good that it's not just the extenuation of any one political problem. I was a bit less awed by the unfolding of the society this time than initially, but it certainly holds up the story as an extended challenge for the Culture. I think it might have worked to make them be a little less overtly nasty, the whole level three of channel, plus having a band play on Azadian skin. Seems a little theatriaclly grotesque. There's no question that Banks pulls off those kinds of details effectively, but it seems a little unsubtle in the end.

-The overall work is strong, but there are two standout scenes. The first runs from where Gurgeh is shown the real Azad, beyond the tourist view, and then runs up through his new ruthless game ending in the gelding of the judge. The second is the whole last game against, running through the final reign of violence. The final game between Gurgeh and Nicosar is brilliant conceptually and how it plays out for real drama--with the game actually modeling the contrasting political ideologies of Azad and the Culture. It's a pity that this doesn't really make any sense. The game logic of Azad should be very much tied to its elevation of hierarchy and ruthlessness. This is the game that keeps the empire together, after all, and connects to power on many levels. Given that, it seems unlikely that their game would just happen to have a pattern where non-hierarchy, non-slavery would prove the superior form. It's a nice scene and a necessary conceit for Banks to dramatize the Culture winning not just from better tech, but the premise doesn't really hold together.

-In the initial briefing on Azad, the drone mentions that Azad's society was at least as complex as the Culture's, and that "It is pure chance that we've met them when their civilization looks primitive to us: one less ice age on Ea and it could conceivably have been the other way round." I've always thought that would make a much better setup for an OCP against the Culture than the one we got in Excession.

-Another thing I liked a great deal about the first third, and that carried even stronger through the rest, was the way Banks undermines the Culture's stance as a functional utopia. Generally I see the discussion about narrative ambiguity with the Culture relating to a general screwup in Look to Windward, the conspiracy in Excession, or the uncertainty over whether the Culture was justified in the Idiran War in Consider Phlebas. For my money, though, The Player of Games features the more ambiguous stance towards norms in the Culture. Not because I think there's any real ambiguity with the interferrance with Azad, but because of how they operate with respect to their own members. For all the apparent openness and porous borders of the Culture, they definitely undermine themselves in regards to implementing their benevolent stance across the galaxy.
-The issue of course is Special Circumstances, the state within the state for effecting change. There are some basic questions that come up here in a way they didn't in Consider Phlebas--such as where precisely does this group come from and how does it operate? They're clearly restrictive in who they admit, but what keeps them as the only designated group for changing things? What happens if other groups form? How is SC actually organized, how does what's clearly a lot more disciplined than the norm (and more tightly organized than they appear) function?
-Even more disturbing is the mention in the first briefing on Azad that SC has known of the Empire for seventy three years, and keeps it secret because if the case were generally known it would cause an outcry, and force a direct intervention that would be problematic in the long-term. Of course this given rationale could be a ruse to keep Gurgeh feeling all special, but the fact of Azad being secret clearly isn't a lie, and the reasoning for not telling others generally checks out.
Well, so much for the Culture being any kind of democracy. This isn't in the common claim of Minds just keeping biologicals around as pets, it's in SC with Minds and more conventional intelligences keeping the wider populace in ignorance for the interests of following their own directed policy. One thing I've always seen as significant for the Culture stance was that there was a referendum on the Idiran War, the majority supported intervention, a minority that was opposed disengaged with the Culture. Here there's no referendum, a blanket of silence, and notification at most long after the fact.

-It's emphasized that keeping Azad secret is something of a unique case, made possible by the stellar positions of everything. Still, this does serve as a graphic demonstration of some problematic things with Special Circumstances--a self-selected elite, their activities crucial for the Culture to be at ease with itself but carried out basically unchecked. And not always successfully. I'll have to see if the setup in Look to Windward makes the Chelgrian screwup a reasonable mistake or not, if it wasn't that undermines a lot of their ethical sanction. And the issue is especially dodgy because it's not just outsiders being manipulated, but Gurgeh himself. This suggests that, when the need is recognized as great, they don't put restraints or firm principles on themselves.
-Gurgeh speculates near the end that his whole life might have been shaped to deliver the perfect candidate. Flere-Imsaho shoots this down flat, mentioning the need still to use outside mercenaries for the "really dirty work". And then it mentions Za, and a few other minor revelations, in what looks a bit like distraction. Besides, the counter-point doesn't really make sense as a rebutal: it's clear from the explanation that the strategy for undermining Azad needed a Culture player, someone who would share Culture assumptions and outlook. Even if they had a mercenary skilled enough in game-playing rather than the usual rough and tumble, it probably wouldn't work in the same way. For a scheme as intimately involved as this, isn't it possible SC had influence long before the start of the novel? Given we know that the drone doesn't share all the factors, such as being Mawhrin-Skel, this has to remain a really suspect issue. This is, then, a novel about a utopian society triumphing over a dystopian one through secrecy, fraud, blackmail and effective coercion, even while its ostensibly a standout of ideals and the benefits of non-coercion. I find that interesting. More to the point, it more than suggests that the Culture tarnishes itself substantially through becoming involved in changing the universe in this way.

-That last element is prominent in the first hundred pages. On my first reading I was most struck by the scene where Mawhrin-Skel paralyzes Gurgeh as a demonstration of power. This time through, I found that general atmosphere put across the story. There's the unrestrained, carefree Culture here, but right alongside with a clear state in SC, with the subject of military grade encryption, blackmail and levels of secrecy intruding. All while they're representing this as just a free offer to study a new game and have some small impact on Azad.

-Also, there's an interesting note on the language Marain, p. 319-320. Specifically it being designed by Minds to be "phonetically and philosophically as expressive as the pan-human speech apparatus and the pan-human brain would allow", still ranked highly as an accomplishment. And, of course, it's part of how the Culture enables its own society. The intent is one presumes to allow autonomy and diversity--but a Mind also draws a comparison to Flere-Imsaho between Marain and Azad (the game). That's more than a bit creepy, and suggests an interesting level of ambiguity to the whole comparison.
-At one point Flere-Imsaho uses its effectors to monitor Gurgeh's brainwaves, seeing that even his apparent sleep wasn't actually sleep, but some type of controlled lucid dreaming. Now, granted this isn't to the level of reading or modifying his thoughts, but it's surprising to see this incident, it seems a lot more intrusive than the general Culture ethic permits. Which of course raises questions on how thoroughly such are actually enforced.

Similar to and better than: Iain Banks' Look to Windward
Similar to and worse than: Greg Egan's Diaspora

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