This is the second novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. They apparently don’t need to be read in order, and everyone who has read them seems to have their suggested reading order to follow, but I like rules, okay? I’m following the publication order on these.
I knew this wouldn’t be related to the first book, but it’s not just a new set of characters, it’s a complete departure. In Consider Phlebas, it was a story taking place in the war between the hedonistic Culture and the war-minded Idirans. I had assumed each book would be stories taking place within that war, but this novel really had very little to do with it. It did involve the Culture expanding its influence to other worlds, which I supposed could be loosely related, but it really took me by surprise.
This follows a citizen of the Culture, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, who is one of the best board game players in the society. It’s a utopian civilization, where all labour is automated and people are free to pursue their passions. Gurgeh’s passion is board games. He plays them all very well, not focusing on just a single game, and teaches others on game strategy, writing academic papers and giving lectures. He’s successful and well known, but has lately grown bored with his life.
Gurgeh is convinced, with the help of some subtle manipulation, to travel on behalf of the Culture to another civilization’s home planet to participate in an incredibly complex game called Azad, as a way of relating the two societies. The game is very important to these people, as their leaders and high-ranking officers are determined by Azad tournaments. They learn the game from a very young age, and it’s not expected that Gurgeh will do well. It’s more a show of good faith.
It’s an interesting way to explain more of how the Culture works without pages of exposition. In having Gurgeh travel to a new world, we’re able to learn about the Culture by how it’s contrasted with this other society. They are a barbaric race in comparison to the Culture, much more like our current world in real life actually, so he’s able to show us the differences between the two, while also at times using it to reflect our own culture, and it never feels like preaching or a Wikipedia entry.
Banks is a brilliant world-builder and he comes up with such imaginative ideas. Just the simple fact that he based a space opera, of sorts, around a board game, shows he was someone who enjoyed the unique and unexpected. Even the small touches he throws in throughout the story. When they first arrive on the new planet, it’s mentioned that their prison is actually a labyrinth from which it is, in theory, possible to escape. The worse the crime, the further in you begin, and it’s been known for criminals with money to bribe their way out. I feel like a whole story could take place just in that prison (which he did, partly, with Walking on Glass), and it’s just a paragraph on the side.
This book, written nearly thirty years ago now, clearly had an impact on people. After Banks’ death in 2013, Elon Musk of the SpaceX program named two autonomous spaceport drone ships, Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, after ships from this book. The story still holds up today. If I didn’t know the publication date going in, I’d have thought it was written recently.
I look forward to reading some more of this series, as well as more of his literary fiction.