The second of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, The Player of Games dramatizes the clash between a post-scarcity, spacefaring anarchist utopia and an imperial power bent on domination and subjugation. Its protagonist, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, is a renowned game-player in the Culture, the aforementioned anarchist utopia; since all labour in the Culture is performed by advanced AIs, he’s had literally a lifetime to develop strategic prowess in every game known to his society. (Think an elite board gamer, perhaps, or an e-sports celebrity.) Bored by his expertise, which leaves him feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled, he risks his reputation and standing in the gaming community to cheat in order to win a game that has never been won by anyone in the Culture – and is offered the chance to redeem himself by travelling to the space empire of Azad in order to play them, literally, at their own game. The game of Azad – which shares its name with the empire itself – is said to be so complex as to approximate the complexity of life in the empire; it’s used to determine who will occupy positions within its government, and, in theory, the winner of Azad gets to become, or stay, emperor.
The story unfolds as you might expect from this starting premise: delivered to Azad, Gurgeh is aghast at the vast wealth inequality and structural oppression he finds there, and also proves, inevitably, an adept even at this unknown game, beating out the empire’s strongest players. What complicates the novel is the ambiguity – slight, but nonetheless present – about the relative moral value of Azad and the Culture. Azad is undoubtedly a shitty place, but the novel is clear that in many ways it’s extremely similar to our own: the parallel is made explicit when the novel’s AI narrator declares that its translation of the pronouns used by members of Azad’s dominant third gender is based on “whether [the reader’s] own civilisation is male or female dominated.” Their pronouns are thus represented as he/him/his, in a rhetorical move that’s undoubtedly designed to point up the parallels between the gender-based oppression cultivated in the Azadian empire and the gender-based oppression at work in our own society. We can, the novel intimates, look down upon the Azadians as unreconstructed and unenlightened; but then we have to realise that we are those things too.
But the Culture is not uncomplicatedly angelic itself, despite the total equality of its citizens and its functionally infinite resources. It becomes clear, for instance, that Special Circumstances, the organisation in the Culture’s government that has sent Gurgeh to Azad in the first place, most likely engineered the cheating incident, and have also, maybe, been manipulating what Gurgeh sees in the empire in order to have it appear to him in the worst possible light. A broader question, which the narrative only really touches on, is whether the Culture’s attempts to reform Azad from within, through having Gurgeh play its foundational game, are justified: are they simply an extension of the “benign” forms of liberal colonialism practised by Western governments today? What, in other words, are the obligations of a post-scarcity society to its neighbours?
For me these questions are the core pleasure of the novel: as a reader interested in non-capitalist ways of organising society, I’m fascinated by the Culture , and especially by its imperfections. Much Western liberal media takes as its foundational assumption the idea that capitalism is bad (which, to be clear, it absolutely is!) and that, by extension, almost any other socioeconomic system must be straightforwardly good; it’s rare and refreshing to read an SF novel that’s truly interested in interrogating our alternatives and working through the ethical and practical problems they present. I’m excited to dive further into the Culture series (having stalled out with the first, bleak novel Consider Phlebas), and hope, too, to see more work like it.