Possible subtitle: The Rubber of Beards
Possible alternative subtitle: It seems that the player… got played!
The last time I read "serious" sci-fi I was twelve years old. I was a bit obsessed with robots, so I bought Asimov's I, Robot collection and dove in. Even at that age, I could sense that something was off. It wasn't the robots -- Asimov writes great robots. In fact, Asimov is so good at writing robots that it seemed like he had applied the same formula to people. Everyone (or at least all the good people) were logical, unemotional, rational, and cold. Reading the stories was like watching a visualisation of a gas in a volume: each character was like a little molecule of logic, bouncing off other molecules to release tiny whisps of Plotium, the rarest of all sci fi elements. Disappointed, I gave up on the genre for a long time. Coming back to it with this book by Iain M. Banks, I soon remembered why I left.
The plot can be covered fairly briefly: the Player of Games is a story about a man named Gurgeh, who is the first sci-fi man to be named after the noise of cat sick. Gurgeh is a brilliant game player. I mean this literally: he plays board games exceptionally well. Alas, one day, Gurgeh makes a mistake -- if only he could play upon human emotions as well as he could play the board! The mistake means that Gurgeh is obliged to play the most complicated board game ever, against aliens whose very civilisation is based upon it. As the games progress, we realise that not just honour is at stake: Gurgeh represents a civilisation of peaceful expansion; the aliens are barbaric and thirsty for war. Whose culture will prevail?
Stop yawning. The fate of the galaxy is at stake.
Gurgeh lives alone in his house in seclusion, being brilliant in various private ways. People sometimes visit him for entertainment or sex, but then they politely leave again after a few days. When people are visiting, Gurgeh's house takes care of the catering and cleaning up, so all Gurgeh has to do is be witty and/or skilled and/or seductive. You can imagine that a life of brilliance, quietude, pampering, relationships maintained by others, and no-strings-attached sex would appeal to a certain type of reader. In fact the whole novel is epic wish-fulfilment of the highest order, as what may be the single greatest game player in the Universe overcomes his own doubts about himself and comes into his own. I hadn't, however, realised that I was going to be reading escapist fiction, so the repeated references to Gurgeh's perfect, ubernerd, life-of-the-mind existence were a little jarring.
Rather like the stereotypical nerd, the book talks a lot about sex but doesn't actually have much sex, and it's always discussed in a rather disinterested, clinical context. Strewn throughout the book are passages about sex, alien sex, and sexual politics, all of which Banks somehow manages to make boring. The passages on alien sex, in particular, sound like a textbook for a kid's health class in a particularly conservative country: "The vagina turns inside-out to implant the fertilized egg in the third sex, on the right, which has a womb."
In fact, the particular aliens Gurgeh visits don't want to have sex with him and think he's kind of disgusting. This would be funnier, except that Gurgeh, predictably enough, decides that he didn't want to have sex with them anyway.
The sexual politics of the novel is also extremely tedious. Early on in the book Gurgeh is talking to a woman, Yay, who visited for the evening but refused to have sex with him. He asks her why. '"I feel you want to ... take me," Yay said, "like a piece, like an area. To be had; to be ... possessed." Suddenly she looked very puzzled. "There's something very ... I don't know; primitive, perhaps, about you, Gurgeh."'
I'm not sure what Banks was trying to do here, but this is classic romance-novel stuff: frail woman thrown into confusion by pure, raw, unadulterated gender role. It later transpires that changing gender and homosexual sex are completely normal in Gurgeh's civilisation, but Gurgeh has never done either of these things, making him a weirdo -- but a sexy, raw, "primitive" weirdo. In any case, this geek wish-fulfillment stuff is very strange to encounter in a sci fi book.
Gurgeh is also kind of a jerk. He ignores people he doesn't like, or actively brushes them away. Gurgeh's civilisation treats conscious machines as equivalent to people, and they certainly act like people, yet it's clear that Gurgeh considers the machines beneath him. Banks seems to go out of his way to establish Gurgeh as irascible and discriminatory. In one baffling scene a drone is trying to discuss an assignment with Gurgeh while Gurgeh actively flicks crumbs from his dinner at it in a remarkably petulant display of passive aggression. Yet at no point is the reader invited to sympathise with Gurgeh's negative aspects -- he's just the main character, he's kind of horrible, that's all there is to it.
The book is hampered by bad writing. The plot is spurred by a transgression of Gurgeh's which leads to an eyebrow-raising blackmailing scene in which all the pieces are there but never seem to come together: there's a paragraph, for example, where the blackmailer explains that he would be happy to reveal the transgression simply for its entertainment value, and then, immediately afterwards, somehow convinces Gurgeh that he wouldn't reveal anything if Gurgeh would just do his bidding. That's followed by a long passage in which Gurgeh mopes that he would never be forgiven, complete with imaginary visualised scenes of social embarrassment, which seem acutely hollow given the kind of man we have established Gurgeh to be. There is a lot of rubbing of beards, which is the universal sci fi action for distracted thought (it's an action which is, of course, accessible only to males, but that is not a problem for traditional sci fi). Gurgeh is a big rubber of beards -- fourteen times, actually, over the course of the book (thanks, Kindle search). It got so repetitive that I started to feel sorry for his chin. The ship Gurgeh travels on is constantly referred to as "the old warship" in the same sense that a thug in a different book would be constantly referred to as "the big man", i.e., lazily. Ocassionally Gurgeh will take a woman back to the old warship, and fuck her in it.
The plot drags. Gurgeh is forced to play a complicated game against aliens, who, it turns out, are rather dreadful. In a hair-raising twist, the reader is invited eventually to discover that the values Gurgeh condemns in the aliens are disturbingly similar to the values that we humans have here on Earth in the present day. Nothing significant is made of this revelation that wouldn't also fit in, say, a weekend newspaper opinion column. There are some half-hearted references to the idea that one's language shapes one's thoughts, but, again, only in ways which are both heavy-handed and cursory (for example: Gurgeh starts speaking in his native language, rather than the inferior language of the aliens, and immediately has an epiphany about how to win his current game). Problems of exposition crop up in several places. There are several long passages in which Gurgeh attempts to explain his civilisation's values to the aliens, apparently because this is the only way that Banks could find to explain Gurgeh's civilisation's values to his readers. In writing about the universe's most complicated game, Banks also has the problem that he needs to write about playing the game without getting bogged down in the rules. Consequently, there are several passages of the form "Gurgeh knew that he was missing something [...] In a flash of inspiration, Gurgeh realised what he was missing". Gameplay without the gameplay, in other words, and, for the reader, all of the frustration of game-playing, but none of the fun.
Frustration is a good summary of the whole book. Banks is aware enough of the genre's tropes to mock them (the names of the spaceships are great), but he doesn't manage to escape them. The result is stereotypical SF: one-dimensional characters, great ideas, and bad writing.