For a long time I’ve wanted to tackle Iain M. Banks’ famous Culture saga, that’s been often hailed as one of the most fascinating and interesting of our times. Several years ago I did read the first book, Consider Phlebas, and though I didn’t exactly dislike it, it somehow failed to captivate me.
Then I happened to read some comments on the internet about how the second book, The Player of Games, is really the best introduction to the Culture series, so I decided to try again. And this second attempt went much better.
In short, on the planet Azad the social, political and economic life revolves around a game – also named Azad – that shapes the empire and its people, whose entire life is dedicated to it, to the point that the outcome influences their social standing. Jernau Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, is sent to Azad to participate in the Game and at the same time to act as a Culture representative. What apparently starts as a diplomatic mission of sorts, with some double-dealing overtones, soon becomes much more, especially for Gurgeh: Azad will put to the test his game-playing abilities, of course, but also the very foundations of who he is as a Culture citizen and as a person.
The story itself builds a constant momentum that involves the reader deeper and deeper, just as Gurgeh finds himself pulled into the Game to the point that it becomes more real than reality itself. One of the best characteristics of the book is that it skims over the rules of the Game, showing it through the players’ reactions rather than through a dry list of technical detail, so that the story-telling remains very fluid – and enjoyable. If this is typical of Banks’ narrative I might have found another favorite author, because I prefer stories where the storyteller leaves details to the readers’ imagination rather than boring them with unnecessary explanations that slow down the pace.
The Culture is however the main protagonist here: a star-spanning civilization that has reached such levels of sophistication that its citizens have left behind the troubles of contemporary humanity – not having to battle with illness, poverty, political or social strife, people from the Culture are free to pursue their goals, be they purely hedonistic or more knowledge-oriented. In other words, Utopia. The differences with the Azad Empire are glaring: the reader learns, together with Gurgeh, that the Empire is indeed a cruel, merciless entity and that behind a glamorous façade lurks an underworld made of sadistic pleasures.
And yet the Culture itself is far from perfect, because even if the citizens live charmed lives, boredom seems to lurk in the sidelines as the consequence of having it all, of wanting for nothing: if the citizens feel this irresistible pull toward something new – the more extreme, the better, like playing life-threatening sports, indulge in outlandish recreational drugs or changing sex back and forth – this could be the sign that the very lack of strife at its core has taken something vital away from the Culture. Gurgeh himself clearly feels this: there is an undertone of despair – unspoken as it is – in his search for more challenging games, and I had the feeling that he considers the Culture too stifling in its perfection to suit his needs, even though he’s unaware of it. Maybe this is the reason he’s contacted for playing on Azad, because he still cares enough about winning, because he faces this kind of challenge like a serious endeavor, not simply one of the many diversions the Culture offers: and if this is indeed the case, if winning is what really matters to Gurgeh, then the next question would be about the reasons for the Culture to involve itself, through him, in the game of Azad, whose winner becomes the empire’s ruler.
Here is where we learn that the Culture is far from a distant, benevolent entity that cares only for its citizens’ well-being: Gurgeh is not an ambassador sent to illustrate different values and viewpoints – he’s rather a one-man army whose goal is to overthrow the old, cruel empire of Azad in favor of something else, but without the unavoidable bloodshed. The Culture comes into the light as the ultimate manipulator, acting not through brute force but rather shaping events, individuals or circumstances by steering them in determined directions, and working though proxies. Like Gurgeh.
I encountered one remarkable detail in that regard: while on Azad Gurgeh uses the local language instead of the Culture’s own (called Marain) and with time this seems to alter his way of thinking, to mutate his response to situations. To the point that his companion, the sentient drone Flere-Imsaho (yes, in the Culture drones are considered sentients, and some of them have quite an attitude) tries hard to engage him in conversation in Marain to draw the man back to a different way of thinking. An apparently small detail, but a thought-provoking one.
All in all this was a great start to what I think will be a fascinating immersion in a multi-faceted universe: how could I resist, for example, huge ships with peculiar, tongue-in-cheek names like “Just Read the Instructions” or “So Much for Subtlety”, whose sentient Minds are way too interested in human affairs? Or the mysterious entity called Special Circumstances that has all the characteristics of a secret organization bent on shaping the course of politics or history? It’s more than enough to keep me reading on…
My Rating: 8,5/10