This book offers a completely different scenario from my previous encounter with the late Mr. Bank’s Culture series, and a totally engrossing one. The main character, Cheradenine Zakalwe, is a Culture agent who acts on behalf of Special Circumstances division – the shady entity I already encountered in Player of Games. In other words, Zakalwe is the kind of person the Culture employs for “dirty” jobs, those that its enlightened population is now incapable or unwilling to perform.
As I noted in my review of Player of Games, the Culture offers its citizens practically everything: it has been defined as a post-scarcity society, one where every need is met, every desire (no matter how outlandish) is fulfilled; there are no poverty, hunger, sickness. Yet I had the definite feeling that this Utopia lacked something fundamental, and I believe it could be a sense of purpose: how could I otherwise explain its citizens’ manic drive for the eccentric, the bizarre? Here is where Special Circumstances comes into play, its members striving to bring the Culture’s way of life to other (less enlightened?) societies, maybe as a form of ultimate denial against that perceived lack of purpose: what it looks like, at least from my perspective, is a form of high-handed meddling that often requires unsavory compromises or, in more extreme cases, the choice between the lesser of two evils.
Here is where Cheradenine Zakalwe comes into play, a human-shaped monkey wrench thrown into the works of a particular society to undermine its social structure or channel an existing conflict into a direction more suitable to Special Circumstance’s goals. And Zakalwe does fulfill his tasks with enthusiasm, uncaring of the dangers and the physical harm that come with the job: at some point he is even beheaded, a situation that seems to have little physical consequences, but adds further baggage to an already complicated psychological profile. This man seems to actively seek that kind of punishment, and as I read along I often wondered why, especially when the slowly accumulating details kept hinting at some deep-seated guilt with its roots in the past.
This is one of the novel’s most fascinating aspects, since it develops on two alternating story-lines: one of them advances in a conventional way, following the attempts of Special Circumstances’ agent Diziet Sma and her drone partner Skaffen Amtiskaw to recall Zakalwe from his self-imposed retirement and employ his services in the reinstatement of a political leader, the only one able to avert a brewing war; the other story-line moves backwards in time to expose Zakalwe’s tormented past and uncover the layers of guilt and self-loathing at the roots of his personality. It’s a very unusual narrative method, and yet it never confused me, but rather increased the suspense as the details on the protagonist built up a widening picture headed toward a momentous revelation.
It’s this revelation that puts Zakalwe’s actions in the proper context: he’s looking for a purpose, driven by a burning need to do something good that will wash away the horrible sins of his past, so it comes as no surprise that he’s doomed to failure because those past actions are truly irredeemable, but most importantly because I think his so-called saviors – be they the Culture, Special Circumstances or both – are not exactly the “good guys” who can offer him that kind of deliverance. For them he is nothing but an instrument, a weapon, to be used for their purposes. No redemption attached.
If Player of Games gave just a hint of the arrogance of the Culture’s mindset, bent on shaping the universe after their own image, here the long list of situations and conflicts into which Zakalwe is all-too-willingly dropped widens the scope of their actions, making it look like a grand-scale plan with chilling overtones. Considering the vast influence wielded in the Culture by artificial intelligences, I could not avoid wondering if this “grand scheme of things” is something conceived by thinking machines rather than the humans who gave them status and a place in society. Certainly the cold pragmatism with which Zakalwe (and how many more like him?) is handled lends substance to this hypothesis: he is an instrument, and his own needs and desires are used to propel him toward fulfilling the Culture’s goal. He tries desperately to prove he’s not the monster he knows himself to be, and by doing the Culture’s bidding, by being their tool, he seeks atonement and maybe a fresh start, not realizing that his status as a weapon robs him of that very humanity he’s trying to recapture.
At the end of the book I was surprised to discover that I still felt a measure of sympathy for Zakalwe despite the knowledge of his past sins (and they are truly terrible): I think that his desperate search for redemption, the long backward journey Banks takes his readers on, was meant to do just that – leave us in the middle of the road seeing both sides of the equation. I can appreciate very much the fact that we are left with no definite answers, because there are none indeed…
Finally, a few notes on the style: I perceived a marked difference in Bank’s narrative here, if compared with Player of Games: it’s more convoluted and requires a greater degree of attention – not just because of the two diverging storylines, but also because of the language itself. Both of these aspects led me to believe that Banks asks a great deal out of his readers, yet also expects to find what he wants. And from a reader’s standpoint this is quite gratifying.
My Rating: 9/10
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
I have been meaning to re-read this short story since I saw the promising news about an upcoming movie based on it: the very fact that Harlan Ellison and J.M. Straczynski will renew their creative cooperation from the times of Babylon 5 – one of the very best science fiction series ever – gives me great hope and not little expectation for this movie.
The story is a classic: in a future world where time – and being on time, always – represent the one law whose transgression can mean death, a mysterious rebel tries to put a monkey wrench into this perfectly oiled mechanism. Not with impassioned speeches or acts of terrorism, but with pranks – and so he styles himself as Harlequin, the ultimate jester, hunted by the dreaded Ticktockman, upholder of the establishment and Master of Time.
The story appears fresh and actual even now, almost fifty years after it was written: it made me think about how Ellison’s writing style feels timeless, as do many of the topics he developed in his works. Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman, is one such example: time does indeed rule our days, either when we try to keep our busy schedules or when we wish for some free time of our own, the latter being such an elusive beast….
In this future dystopian world Time and punctuality have eaten humanity’s soul, robbing it of every joy that makes life worthwhile: there are two such examples in the course of the narration, and though they are polar opposites in mood, they give a clear picture of the society. The first concerns a woman receiving a dreaded Termination Notice from the Ticktockman: she desperately hopes that it’s for her husband (as it indeed is), because she’s terrified at the notion of losing her life – to the point that she wishes that fate on her spouse, or even on one of her children. As long as it’s not her. This chilling little detail speaks loudly about the way the totalitarian rule of Time has changed people. As does the other snapshot, the one about a medical convention whose participants laugh in high amusement at the Harlequin’s antics, as if they had forgotten the simple act of laughing, or the meaning of it.
I’m curious to see how the upcoming movie will portray all this, and much more: considering the involved parties, I have high hopes about the outcome.