Under the arguable utopianism of The Culture and misleading excitement of Azad game, lays a critical commentary on contemporary society, especially the portion that we believe to have left in while embracing modernity. With that outlook Bank’s The Player of Games feels like a revisit on past from future, to cringe upon the parochialism and stupidity that were then passed as norms under the illogical excuse of ‘tradition’.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Culture’s best gamer, is almost everything I wanted to grow up to be when I was a kid; maybe even now as if I can replace boring strategies with 60fps computer ones. In Gurgeh’s world, where he lives mostly in the company of drones, work is not demanded of an individual unless he or she wants to do something about the utopian boredom. Bank’s Culture is this egalitarian AI managed (?) interconnected network of worlds devoid of poverty and general sufferings of life. Story starts when our pro gamer gets sent to an outside Empire built completely on a ‘game’, as a player and an emissary. Azadian Empire is pretty much how Oasis in Ready Player One might look like if it was set in medieval times and gunters were board game strategists. With Gurgeh’s outsider pov, book takes us through the strategies and metrics of the game and draws subtle criticism to everything the Empire stands for, and Culture as well. If Culture can be considered as a benign version of Hyperion’s Hegemony, Azadian Empire would be its Maui Covenant and Gurgeh its Fedmahn Kassad.
While we have Culture as this utopian end point in the spectrum, Banks doesn’t place Azadian Empire at the other extreme, rather it stands somewhere in the middle. The game determines Empire’s social hierarchy which, ideally, one can improve by advancing his play. With this political setting that offers a game based nonviolent solution, it isn’t exactly wrong to paint some shades of utopianism on the Empire. But the social ladder of this seemingly glamorous Empire is later revealed to be ill defined and oppressive; laden with xenophobia and sexism. The equality of opportunity is rather limited when it comes to the game, with Azadian women being side-lined from learning the moves. Through Gurgeh’s eyes, readers are slowly taken through the dystopian side of this game obsessed world, devoid of any rule of law, where people has legal and moral right to oppress those who are below their earned status. There are even secret broadcasts that cash on this violence like hottotts from Oryx and Crake.
To me, many of these were obvious digs on reduced versions of eastern civilizations in general, in subtlety. The word ‘Azad’ means freedom in eastern languages; an oxymoronic choice for an empire enslaved by the game. The choice of board games or rather gambling in statecraft settlements can trace origins as old as Chess games of Mahabharata, epic of Indian subcontinent. Instances where wisdom prevail over or avoid battles are also a repeating characteristic of many later eastern stories. Further I was tempted to extend the nature of elimination, where the inferiors doesn’t make it to next round, to sub continent’s caste system and aristocracy. Also, the game had an unifying aspect in the Empire; under generalists who shared a common culture that legitimized imperial rule with their sense of achieved merit. Something Chinese Imperial Exam and Indian Civil Services can draw parallels with. Interestingly, Azadians came in three genders — Male, Female, and Apex with the evolved later latter exercising superiority over former indigenous conjugals. My colonial readings made me view them as the Imperial oppressors who were adamant in maintaining a monopoly over civil services and hence administration over their subjects. While we attach these allegorical meanings, it would be worthwhile to notice usage of the word ‘game’ by Empires throughout world history, colonial and otherwise, from ‘The Great Game’ to ‘The New Great Game’.
Though Banks polarizes the civilizational differences, he leaves them grey for interpretations. More Gurgeh plays the game, more he becomes aware of the perspectives he play for and against, Culture and Empire. Maybe Culture isn’t utopian as it seems, maybe he was only born and raised this way to feel so, maybe the utopia he is part of doesn’t offer free will, or maybe its plain boring. The State of the Art describes these aspects in a greater extend further in the series. Readers are allowed only peripheral views of the Culture in this book, and interestingly, it is the very same for protagonist as well. With a title as Player of Games and a titular character who is an intergalactic Game theorist, book was a bit disappointing on the strategic aspects of brainy boss fights. Instead, most of the story moved like unskippable old cut scenes, with amazing cinematics though.
In a way, Bank’s game empire represents a past that we are glad to have been over with. There is also this suggestion of future retrospection invoking the same sentiment as well. Let’s hope the latter to be more bearable then with Musk’s Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, and the likes.