Monday, August 10, 2009

Game theory

One of the most prominent authors in the "New Space Opera" movement is Iain M. Banks (who apparently also writes fantasy, but under the name "Iain Banks", without the 'M'), whose highly-regarded novels are all set in a far-future society called "The Culture". It's the ultimate human paradise, apparently, with all needs taken care of by society and with people having achieved a status of near immortality. (Death is probably still a certainty, but it's put off for a very long time when the only ways you can die are to perish in various mishaps or the like.) Banks also represented a fairly large gap in my SF reading history, which I've begun to correct, starting with The Player of Games.

Now, the fact that I haven't read much Banks isn't entirely my fault. Banks is a British writer, which means that for various reasons I'm not really privy to, his work has had a spotty publishing history here in the US. (In fact, the copy I own of Banks's Consider Phlebas, which I bought in Canada, is specifically labeled on the back cover: "Not for sale in the US".) Of late Banks's older Culture novels have started to appear again, courtesy the Orbit label, so I can finally start collecting him, which I intend to do, seeing as how I enjoyed The Player of Games a great deal.

Our hero in The Player of Games is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a man who is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, gamers of the entire Culture. He plays nearly every game that has ever existed, and he plays each one at an extremely high level. He is one of the greatest masters of strategy games to ever live, and as the book opens, he is bored. Desiring new challenges, he learns of a far-off star empire whose entire society revolves around a game that is so massive and so complex that whoever wins the game becomes Emperor. Gurgeh is entranced by the notion of such a game, and he undertakes the journey to the Empire of Azad to play their game. What unfolds there is fascinating, occasionally harrowing, and always surprising.

Gurgeh is an interesting character. Banks doesn't portray him terribly heroically; in fact, Gurgeh is quite flawed. But his flaws don't necessarily stop us from rooting for him, even when a stupid act on his part results in his being blackmailed by a sentient robot drone. The whole book is also based on a very nifty idea, this game whose very complexity determines who will rule the Empire. It is to Banks's credit that he doesn't really try to give a good description of the game or its rules; he throws out little details here and there that suggest aspects of the game, but for the most part he leaves it all up to the reader. That's a wise choice, seeing as how the reader's imagination is really the only place where a game like this could exist.

The book also has some wonderful Sfnal touches, the most striking being the planet whose biological life cycles are based on the frequency with which a fire that constantly circumnavigates the globe sweeps by. I've also been told that a key motif in Banks's Culture novels is that the starships tend to have distinctive names that are often jocular in nature. One ship is called the Limiting Factor, which isn't terribly funny, but another is called the Kiss My Ass, which kind of is. Having not read any of the other Culture books, I found The Player of Games a fine introduction to a milieu that is apparently very large and complex. The book remains pretty well on point throughout, with fine pacing and a cast of characters that isn't too unwieldy to keep straight. It's a different kind of space opera, to be sure; this isn't the kind of space opera that has great fleets of warships pumping energy rays at one another. But it is, most definitely, space opera. And it's a fine one. I'm looking forward to continuing exploring the Culture.


Anonymous said...

I am an American too who just recently discovered Banks. I came to him thru his non-SF fiction. Liked it so well, I followed him to SF. I now have all his books (bought most of them via Amazon) and have read them all except Matter, his latest. For SF, I especially liked Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons and Excession but I've noticed different readers vary a lot on their favorites.

Vicki Williams

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Stick to these types of posts and away from political talk I won't have to embarrass you again. I thought people were "allowed" to disagree with you. Apparently not. Childish name calling and abrupt censorship, I expected more.

Kelly Sedinger said...

OK, now you're starting to get obnoxious.

First, you were not refraining from childish insults at all ("Ma Jones's Boy", to begin with) and playing the "Let me dig about for anything I can find that's kinda-sorta maybe a little bit like what you're talking about so I can bleat about hypocrisy" game that's really pretty tiresome. I am simply not interested in hearing someone shout out "Al Sharpton!" in Pavlovian response every time I say something about Sarah Palin.

Second, you did not "embarrass" me. Not sure why you think you did.

Third, I will decide what to post on my blog. You're free to read it or not read it, as per your choice. You're also free to disagree or not. No one is forcing you to read and/or comment. You said your piece, I found it wanting, expected more of the same, and don't feel like bothering.

Fourth: You're not being "censored". I didn't delete any comments of yours; I simply shut off a thread that is unlikely to go anywhere useful. That I will make decisions as to what passes for useful comment on MY blog does not constitute "censorship".

I have no problem with disagreement. Lots of people have disagreed with me here over the years, and I expect lots more will. You're welcome to disagree with me. Certain conversations, though, are simply not fruitful, and I treat them as such.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

It is not my intention at all to be obnoxious. The fact that your adjitated, to say the least, by simple discourse is an indication only of how polarized you are in regard to your political views.

Purposely ignoring the parallel I drew between the ghetto and the trailer park is just plain rude. Every conversation that any celebrity or comedian or whatever pop celeb makes that includes trailer park is bound to be a joke. The national conscious is starting to view the trailer park and its inhabitants (cracker is such a funny word huh?) in a negative light that is purely racist in its justification. Ignoring this makes you no better than what you supposedly hate. Even if you do laud the ghetto in turn.

People who feel the answer to the problems in this country is to simply get behind the other guys are the reason we are going nowhere fast. I believe double standards and bureaucracy are our real enemy.

I do like your writing. I have read your short stories and intend to read the Promised King. I thoroughly enjoy the weekly posting on classical music and have gone so far as to buy the books you recommended on green man (well 3 of them).

I will try to be less antagonistic in the future, but I will not apologize for being right.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Earl, what agitates me, if anything, is being told how I should run my blog. Your politics don't annoy me at all. But a reminder clearly became necessary that this particular little outpost on the Interweb is mine.

As for the ghetto versus trailer park thing, you'll just have to live with my rudeness there. Sorry, but I just don't see the comparison as being all that important or interesting.

As for "being right", well, as I don't think you've been right, you have no need to apologize.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

If you want to prance around like an alpha male rooster be my guest. Purposely ignoring a reincarnation of sanctioned racism by the "natural aristocracy" (artists et al) is not going to make it go away. Indeed it will only help nurture its propagation.

Kelly Sedinger said...

So you start this thread by getting annoyed at "childish insults", which (a) you indulged first and (b) continue to indulge ("prancing like an alpha male rooster")? You don't get to claim high ground that you never held. Sorry you don't realize that. Also sorry that you can't wrap your head around the possibility that I simply don't grant your premise. I've no idea why you're so obsessed about the trailer park thing, but that's your problem, not mine. This blog is where I write about things that I think on subjects that I find interesting, and your attempts to shame me into thinking the way you do are now, officially, beyond tiresome.

And now I'm closing this thread as well, with a secondary warning that if you attempt to continue flogging this dead horse on the comments of a third post, I will simply start deleting.