Over three decades after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.
Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.
But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his literary fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because of his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.
These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:
Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.
Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.
Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.
One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks makes a powerful argument for peace as the ultimate strategy.
Incredible thanks to my patrons for making this essay possible. And to my beta readers, in particular Sarah Imrisek and Joshua Newman, for challenging my arguments.
Games have always been seen, to a greater or lesser extent, as models of life. Monopoly makes its social metaphor explicit; he who owns the most of London wins at capitalism. Chess has long been called the “game of kings” because its dynamics are a close parallel to courtly intrigues and human politics. Poker is favoured by gamblers and economists alike, both professions that study the interplay of probability and human psychology. It’s a commonplace assumption to say that people who win at games tend to win at life.
Games as models of life took on a new importance in the 20th century with the development of game theory, a branch of mathematics pioneered by John Nash, whose life and work were popularised in the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes Nash schools his math nerd friends on the dynamics of chatting up girls; never talk to the most beautiful girl first because her less attractive friends will then reject you. Nash’s insight was that human relationships and transactions could be understood as a game, a game in which those who understood the “mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers” would have a major advantage. You may not know it, but the principles of game theory are today a driving force in economics, politics, military strategy and many other areas of modern society.
“Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars.”
The marketing industry quickly adopted game theory. When you’re persuaded to buy a new Mercedes by a barrage of advertisements, it’s your tendency to value objects as symbols of status in the game of life that is being exploited. This marketing technology reached its apogee in the late 2000’s concept of “gamification”. If you’ve ever found yourself returning to the same supermarket, petrol station of coffee shop again and again to fill up your loyalty card, you have been “gamified”. Reward Schedules, Behavioural Momentum, Countdowns and Disincentives are just a few of hundreds of documented “game dynamics” that are now routinely employed by marketers to capture your attention and manipulate your behaviour. Games evolved these dynamics to keep you playing, now businesses employ them to keep you shopping.
Games have leapt from the parlour to the big screen, as computers have replaced board games with the high resolution spectacle of modern video games. Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars. By even the most modest estimates, video gaming is the world’s most popular entertainment. But all that gaming isn’t just a distraction. We are, as a society, becoming experts in the dynamics of gameplay. Game designer and commentator Jane McGonigal argues that videogames are training a generation of “expert gamers”, masters of game strategy with over 10,000 hours game play experience, an army of high level problem solvers ready to reshape society as an Epic Win.
I call the pervasive influence of games in today’s world “ludification”, derived from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning game or play. While gamification implies the many positive applications of game play in today’s world, ludification reflects on the problematic aspects of that same process. Ludus means game, but it also means deception. Games seem to offer a model that allows as to triumph over many of the problems the world throws at us. But while it’s clear that games can make us winners, too often we overlook how they also make us losers.
The Player of Games is the second novel in Iain M Banks’ science fiction sequence the Culture. Banks’ science fiction novels fit loosely into the genre of Space Opera – epic adventures and battles fought between the stars. As a story The Player of Games sits well alongside novels like The Hobbit and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; a comfortable, somewhat naive human is forced to journey into a strange world and discover their true self. Like much of the best science fiction, Banks’ work also reflects on the real world, and as the title suggests, games are at the centre of the allegory that Banks weaves.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture’s most famous game player. Board and card games, as the Culture is oddly lacking in computer games, despite being a super advanced galaxy spanning civilisation. Gurgeh’s life, in common with all citizens of the Culture, is utopian. He lives in a beautiful estate on an “orbital” artificial world. Nobody in the Culture works, unless they get bored. There is no poverty, sickness, violence or indeed any real suffering of any kind. There is no discrimination, people can change their gender or any aspect of their identity however they wish. This utopia is made possible by Minds, artificial intelligences who do all the real work in the Culture, an issue that is central throughout the sequence.
Gurgeh faces one of the few problems imaginable in a true utopia. In a world of absolute equality, how does a human satisfy their need to be special? Gurgeh’s solution is his mastery of games. While citizens of the Culture can have anything they want, Gurgeh’s status as the greatest living player of games is uniquely his. However, Banks hints that this makes Gurgeh something of a throwback, a man too rigid to even swap his gender (Gurgeh has always been male and only sleeps with females) who needs to win dominance over others to feel complete. In another world, perhaps even in our world, Gurgeh might have been a great general or king, a business leader or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But in the Culture, he’s simply a player of games. Famous, but ultimately no more significant than any other individual.
The Minds that govern the Culture have their own hobbies. The nature of the Minds is explored in all of the Culture novels, but it’s enough here to know that they are benign rulers, who will basically do anything to make human existence comfortable. Minds have unique personalities, but they all have vast intelligence and, importantly, a rather wicked sense of humour. As they continue to explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While being largely pacifist, the Culture does frequently intervene to make these alien civilisations less awful. In fact, the Minds rather enjoy the vastly complex thinking required to tinker with an entire society. It’s a rather entertaining game to them.
“Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play.”
The Empire of Azad is one such alien civilisation. Despite stretching over a few hundred star systems, Azad has somehow managed to retain an Imperial political structure. Banks argues that Imperial systems are deeply inefficient, so civilisations that expand beyond their home planet nearly always transition to far more utopian systems of government. The Azadians have maintained their deeply unjust Imperial system for one important reason: a vastly complex game called Azad, from which the empire takes its name. Azad is used to determine who governs the empire. The game provides the empire with stability by making sure the most competitive and ruthless individuals wield power. The cost, as we will explore in more detail, is that Azadian society is a deeply unpleasant place to live for anyone not in this ruling class.
Azadians come in three genders – male, female, and apex. Apices wield all power, while males and females have been selectively bred to lower their intelligence. Poverty is widespread in the empire, and lower economic classes can be beaten or killed by the rich without consequence. The many alien cultures conquered by the Azadians are enslaved. In one moment of The Player of Games we are told of a conquered alien being shaved of its fur, in an image that echoes the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. Later in the novel we discover that the empire has secret broadcasts seen by its elite, broadcasts of live sexual humiliation, rape, torture, and the mass murder of children. Aspects of the empire are glamorous, intoxicatingly so, but Banks leaves us in no doubt that it is a fundamentally horrific place.
Gurgeh is, through a series of machinations plotted by the Minds, sent off to, quite literally, beat the Azadians at their own game, which he duly does. The emotional charge of the story turns on Gurgeh’s own transformation from game player to fully rounded human being, as he is taught the ultimate inhumanity of a society based on games. Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play. The allegory is completed when, in the story’s denouement, we learn that while Gurgeh has been making his moves, the real “player of games” are the Minds who have manipulated him into this quest. Mind’s that are machines, but who demonstrate that even a machine can choose to act humanely.
Which of Mr Banks’ two imagined societies seems more realistic to you? The utopian vision of a galaxy spanning Culture where humans live lives of pleasure? Or the empire of Azad, where a privileged elite of the most ruthless and cunning oppress and exploit all others? I suspect that, if answering honestly, most of you believe that Azad is more like human reality than the Culture. A brief glance at history shows humans repeating all the same sins as Azadians, over and over again.
Which society would you rather live in? I hope for your own well being that you answer the Culture. But again I suspect many of you will say the question is overly wishful. Whatever we might rather, the real world is like Azad. There are rules, and hierarchies and winners and losers. The world is a game, and given the options, you’d rather be a winner.
The ludification of our world is the triumph of the desperate hope and belief that we can, we will, indeed we must, be among the winners. And it’s a process driven by primal fears. John Nash, the father of game theory, was a profound paranoid schizophrenic whose fears were so powerful they manifested as crippling delusions. If you saw every human as a player in a game, driven by a selfish agenda, capable of any deception, as Nash’s game theory suggests, you’d be crippled with paranoia as well. Maybe you do. Maybe you are.
“the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history”
It’s hardly possible to look at the marketing industry’s cynical adoption of “gamification” as anything but the most scurrilous form of manipulation. Yes, the human desire for status and various other psychological traits are easily gamed to sell us everything from Coca-Cola to Coco Chanel. But what good does this do for anyone? Seriously, tell me, because I’m totally unable to think of anything.
Video games could conceivably produce a generation of super skilled Epic Win problem solvers. If game designers like Markus Persson (Minecraft) or Jenova Chen (Journey) are any guide this might happen, but it will be despite the best efforts of the vast industry that has made games, for all their potential, into the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history. If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers, entirely lacking in both critical thinking and basic human empathy. Ideal citizens of the empire of Azad.
But let me put it to you that Bank’s allegory is more hopeful than you suspect. The Player of Games, the Culture and Azad are a fiction. But the two tendencies that they represent – towards competition and violence on the Azadian side, or towards cooperation and peace on on the Culture side – both exist within the human heart. And they are both necessary to our health and happiness. The real question is how we balance them.
At the climax of The Player of Games, Gurgeh plays a final match with emperor Nicosar. This final game of Azad is played over many days, and for high stakes. Gurgeh’s victory ultimately, as the Minds of the culture calculated it would, topples the entire Azadian empire. But how Gurgeh wins is where the story’s real meaning hides. While Nicosar deploys his pieces as an Imperial army, Gurgeh shapes his forces in the peaceful model of a more advanced civilisation. And over time, Gurgeh’s peaceful society simply absorbs and overwhelms the attackers, and turns them toward peace. Gurgeh wins the ultimate game, by learning not to think like a player.
Its been my lived experience that expert game players are no better at life itself than anyone else, and are often worse. The man who whips his kids at Monopoly isn’t necessarily winning at being a dad. Chess players when they involve themselves in real world politics, like Gary Kasparov’s disastrous tilt at Russian president Vladimir Putin, seem to have learned no transferable skills from the game of kings. Economists proliferate everywhere, just as priests did in earlier ages, and everywhere their influence touches our economic problems rapidly multiply. Games it seems are not particularly good models of reality at all.
Instead many of the great victories of the last century have gone to those who, like Jernau Morat Gurgeh, play by the rules of peace. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent politics succeeded in freeing the entire Indian sub-continent from British rule. Martin Luther King’s insistence on peace as the path towards civil liberties for black Americans triumphed over violent strategies deployed by both sides of the conflict. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s compassionate use of Peace and Reconciliation committees averted the potential of horrific bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa. Wherever you look, progress is made by those who refuse to play by old rules of violence and bloodshed. And where those rules are still asserted – in Iraq, in Syria, in North Korea and elsewhere, human suffering only multiplies, nobody wins and we all lose.
Did the violent Azadians lead to peace, or to infinitely more skilled players of games in the Minds of the Culture? Ultimately they are one and the same thing. What the Minds understand is that peace is a far more powerful strategy than violence. It’s a lesson we could learn ourselves, with a glance at our own history. Instead the ludification of modern society continues our losing strategy of turning to violence as our first and last resort. Violence might win on the limited scale of a chess board or a Call of Duty map. But in the vastly more complex space we call reality, violence loses again and again. If games are to fulfil their great potential in the world, they need to choose winners who play the strategy of peace.
It’s been 10 years, and I don’t know how much longer I can wait.
The millennium was new, the future seemed boundless and Look to Windward had just been published. We, your fans, were ecstatic to see a new novel from Iain M Banks. We had waited patiently as you conquered the world of “mainstream literature”, knowing one day you would return to science fiction. And while we had read and loved your standalone SF novels, what we really wanted was a new story from the world of the Culture. You did not disappoint us.
Sarah Crown over at The Guardian book blog today asks readers for their top books of the noughties. Unsurprisingly my picks are quite speculative in nature, and there are so many that I eventually gave up trying to list them all. It was also complicated by the fact that many of my favourite books read this decade were not published this decade. So here goes my top 10…the first 9 in no particular order (and not all SF!).
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – a book with many great parts and more than a few awful ones, but done with such ambition that it has to be applauded.
Look to Windward by Iain M Banks – the last of the real Culture novels and for my money Bank’s best, especially if read with Consider Phlebas.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – this book had an incredibly profound effect on me. Probably the only book I’ve read that captured the detached nature of being twenty something in the twenty first century.
Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland – a read this in a night then had to take a sickie from work because I spent all day crying. Darn you Douglas Coupland.
Light by M. John Harrison – this is the book I give people who don’t think SF can be literary. Or just when I want to deeply, deeply disturb them.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link – if you don’t like Kelly Link then I question your membership of the human race. So there!
Shriek by Jeff Vandermeer – I just love this.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – if you don’t like Ted Chiang I question your status as a sentient entity of any kind.
Micah by Laurel K Hamilton – for personal reasons this will always be in my Top 10 Books of All Time.
I’ve probably left many of my favourites out and will have to revise the list tomorrow when I remember them. And my Number 1? Well it probably comes as little surprise that Neil Gaiman snags that spot for American Gods. I’ve read it three times, and listened to the audiobook twice, so what else was it going to be? It also wins in terms of influence. Contemporary fantasy would be a very different genre today without this book.
A couple of slightly interesting links…
The Everything is Nice blog link to my post on bookshops. I appreciate the detail they have gone to in their response, but don’t agree with their points.
As a writer, you get used to doing thing for yourself. But one piece of common place wisdom is that in order to get published writers need a literary agent. Mark Liam Piggott at the Guardian blog is not so sure about that, having been represented by agents but eventualy selling his first novel himself to small press / independent publisher Legend. And if anyone is in any doubt that there are bad agents in the world, you need look no further than the SFWA’s Thumbs Down Agency List.
But while there are bad agents in the world, it would be very foolhardy to assume a writer is better of without any agent. The issue is finding the right agent. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to many established, successful novelists in the last few years and every single one of them is represented by a good agent. While you can get published in the small press without an agent, I’d argue its much more difficult to break into a major comercial publisher, and near impossible to build a sustainable career with the right agent in your corner.
I’m yet to even apply to a single agent, but that is because I’m not at the right point in my writing career for an agent to be useful to me, or vice versa. But even so, I have a very good idea of the agents I most want to be represented by, both here and in the US. An agent is not like a plumber. This might sound obvious, but many people seem to approach finding an agent like finding a plumber. Grab Writers Year Book (the literary Yellow Pages) stick a pin in the agents section and send your work off. Or stick twenty pins in, and send your work off twenty times, more likely. The reality is that whatever kind of writer you are, there are probably only a small number of agents at any give time who have the right expertise, and the right contacts, to effectively represent your work. Knowing who those agents are is as essentail as knowing every other element of the market you are trying to sell your work into.
For instance, an aspiring UK genre writer with a literary edge to their work could do worse than being represented by Mic Cheetham, whose clients include Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Toby Litt, Jon Courtney Grimwood, China Mieville, Ken McLeod, Tricia Sulivan and Steph Swainston. If that looks like a roll-call of late ’90s / early 00’s UK science fiction thats because it is. Cheetham pretty much cornered the market on genre writers with mainstream appeal over that period and still does to an extent. A good agent is a lot more than a contract negotiator these days. They are the talent scouts and first line editors for most major publishers, and being spotted by one can be the first step to a career in fiction writing.
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.