Within the context of its time, The Player of Games is a shockingly progressive novel. Given that it was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I’m impressed that Ian M. Banks chose to deliberately and consciously include queer themes and explicitly endorse homosexuality as something that is not just okay, but also a perfectly normal part of a healthy utopian society. Sadly, the novel does not hold up well when looked at through a modern lens.
Given how frequently I still see the book discussed and recommended in modern SF circles, I expected a lot more. I expected depth of thought on the level of Delany or Le Guin. Instead. Well, I think that Banks bit off a bit more than he could chew when it came to representing a post-gender society. I find it baffling that this novel continues to be recommended given that the conversation surrounding gender, sexism, racism, and human rights overall has moved on so far beyond the scope of The Player of Games. Certainly, it seems like it would have been daring and impressive in the 80s… but today? Less so.
Ultimately, the novel is a white, male, colonialist narrative packaged neatly in a wannabe-post-gender setting. While I believe that the focus on board games was meant to be a nod towards broader nerd culture, it causes the book to feel like it was written to allow deeply conservative, probably misogynistic men an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for having read a sexually progressive novel – completely ignoring the fact that it centers people like them as opposed to people from the marginalized demographics who are the ones who actually need to be uplifted. It feels vaguely fetishistic, tapping into the white male savior complex.
I’ll grant that most books did not make this much of an effort in the 80s. Many, however, did: novels like Trouble on Triton by Samuel R Delany, the collected works of Ursula K. Le Guin, etc. Even less literary-leaning authors were out there writing good, highly-developed queer characters; this is the same time period in which Mercedes Lackey was writing the Queen’s Own trilogy (also known as the Arrows trilogy). Each of these authors wrote books that hold up today, even if imperfectly. Trouble on Triton in particular has the feel of a modern commentary on incel and male entitlement culture.
The Player of Games, sadly, is heavy-handed at best in its social themes. The main thrust of the narrative follows an incredibly entitled man who is distinctly coded as white and western (if not explicitly described as such) who learns about why genocide, torture, and extreme sexism are bad things. While one might argue that these ideas were not “the point,” and that instead the main idea of the novel was how and why Gurgeh was manipulated by the AIs in charge of the Culture, it’s a fact that these pieces of social commentary have a great deal more screen time than the subterfuge plotline. In fact, eradicating these atrocities is the goal of the AI – their purpose is to use these to shock Gurgeh into assisting them in their ultimate cause.
On a surface level, the Culture seems to be a post-gender society. It’s clearly indicated that the concept of gender is fluid and nebulous; people frequently change their sex simply to try something new. Additionally, women are shown in positions of power and it is emphasized that what gender you present as is not a barrier to any profession you set your heart on. Yet, despite these things, the novel is steeped in the male gaze and suffers from characterizing woman as being infantile and men as being concerningly creepy (at best).
In the opening scene, we’re introduced to the main character, Gurgeh, and the woman whose favor he most covets, Yay. Gurgeh is a master games player. He specializes in board games of all types, and he is widely considered to be the absolute best at them in the Culture. Recently, he’s found himself afflicted with the most dreadful of all emotions: boredom. He’s tired of living a risk-free life. To help him out, Yay has introduced him to a war game. While it’s not the same intense strategizing as his typical fair, it’s designed to be fun and highly tactile. Rather than appreciate Yay’s efforts, Gurgeh dismisses the game as being for children, and therefore implying that Yay (whom he only refers to as a “girl” and never as a “woman” despite his sexual interest in her) herself is more of a child than an adult.
Later, when Yay visits Gurgeh at his home, she decides to go outside for a run in the rain. She strips down until she’s only wearing shorts. Culture women, apparently, have no need for things like sports bras. When she returns from her run, she removes her shorts and sits naked on Gurgeh’s couch, her body “quivering.” When she gets up, a damp spot is left on the seat… which Gurgeh promptly heads over to because he wants to get a good sniff of it. Yes, he smells the place she was sitting naked on his couch. He then attempts to ask her to stay over to have sex with him, but Yay turns him down – it’s not difficult to imagine why she wouldn’t be interested.
The most competent women are portrayed as less feminine, as well. The first woman who presents a challenge to Gurgeh in his games playing is a young teenager named Olz, who is deliberately defeminized. She is described as wearing shapeless, drab clothing, and referred to by Gurgeh as “a talented infant.” Gurgeh feels distinctly threatened by her, which perhaps plays into his desire to infantalize her. Gurgeh also has a professor friend who is a woman; unlike Yay, who is characterized as infantile, the professor’s physical characteristics are never described or dwelled upon. Even the professor is referred to as a “girl” rather than as a “woman.” Additionally, any time someone is referenced as having or raising children, the person in question is always woman-presenting.
Whenever Gurgeh is playing a game, he tends to compare winning to a sexual thrill. Given that he also emphasizes it as a point of pride that he has never changed his sex, I cannot help but read this as an attempt at social commentary on masculinity and the need to dominate. Of all the gender-related ideas explored, this felt like one of the better ones. This need to win, to dominate, leads Gurgeh to be caught in a bout of blackmail. It’s also the emotional need that is exploited most predominantly by the Culture AI in their efforts to subsume the Azadian Empire via boardgames.
The Azadian Empire itself is composed of three sexes, resulting in a gender trinary. There are men, women, and the dominant gender, apices. This is used to highlight the ways that both men and women suffer from sexism. Women are effectively married off as chattel, subservient to their husbands. Men are generally used as soldiers or for manual labor. Apices make up the ruling class and are given the best educational and social opportunities for advancement.
Unfortunately, both in the Culture and in Azad, gender seems entirely linked to physical sex traits, and we do not see anyone outside the gender binary except as a transitional state aiming at either full male or full female sexual characteristics. It is possible that this is not true in other Culture novels which are not primarily set in a non-Culture world.
Azad is ruled by a psuedo-meritocracy, which I found to be really interesting but sadly underdeveloped. The ruler is ostensibly chosen by winning a series of extremely complex alliance-based board games. If the book shined more of a spotlight in the political machinations and the limitations of meritocracy within an inherently bigoted society, I would have found it to be a much more satisfying reading experience. It also would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the impact of a gender trinary from a social perspective. Sadly, commentary remains surface levelband without subtlety. Gurgeh, for example, has a conversation with an Azadian woman about her skill at the national board game but lack of opportunity for education and the way the other players team up to drive her off the board without giving her a chance to ever form the alliances needed to win. At other points in the book, physical stakes are set to up the risk of the board game tournaments. The loser may be required to castrate themselves or allow the winner to anally rape them.
Most criticisms of the Azadian Empire’s bigoted, colonialist ways are extreme and over the top. They include things such as betting on having genitals cut off should they lose at the Empire’s board game, genocide of all dark-skinned Azadians, sexual humiliation, torture, and street gang violence. These descriptions are often quite graphic. The biggest points seemed to be that genocide is bad, that social barriers to success based on gender are bad, women shouldn’t be sold as wife-chattel things, and that all of politics are inherently rigged even if it’s a supposedly merit-based system. It doesn’t really get any more nuanced beyond that.
There is also an alien that breathes through its penis depicted in an erotic wrestling match at a club. I don’t really know what to say about that, but it feels like something that bears mentioning nonetheless.
At the book’s conclusion, the only character growth Gurgeh appears to have undergone is having understood that his previous boredom and affected disillusionment wasn’t that bad in comparison to the legal rape and torture of Azad. Naturally, to reward him for this monumental realization, Yay sleeps with him. Presumably this is meant to show that he truly is a changed man. During the time Gurgeh was gone, Yay had decided to change her sexual characteristics to become male. Before sleeping with him, however, she’s already mostly completed her transformation back to female sexual characteristics – our dear, ever-so-masculine Gurgeh couldn’t possibly sleep with a man, after all.
Throughout the novel, Gurgeh also repeatedly asserts that the Culture has erased individualism. I found this to be strange given that it was very obviously untrue to me as a reader. For example, Gurgeh himself is the Culture’s premier games player and has achieved significant fame for this. Yay is seeking a career in Plate (planet-like constructs) building. The professor obviously had to work her way up to become a professor. These are all very personal, individual accomplishments that I see as analogous to the sort of careers most of us pursue today in Western culture.
There were several aspects of the novel that I found intriguing, but was disappointed by when they were not explored in depth. I enjoyed the way the Minds and Special Circumstances manipulate humans to achieve their aims, and I would have liked to see more conversation about machine personhood in general. The use of glanding was also very interesting, and it would have been wonderful to see some exploration on how that impacts sense of self. It reminded me of the “bumping and tuning” present in Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, which did explore this facet of self-manipulation. While I suspect these things might be given more screen time in other Culture novels, I’ll confess that the writing style and issues with male gaze inherent in The Player of Games has me wary of committing more time to the series.
The approach towards gender and human rights is a conversation we’ve moved past long ago in SFF. Today, the best authors look at these ideas through a queer, BIPOC, intersectional gaze. They capture the nuances that Banks fails to portray. Again, while this approach may have been radical in the 80s…. It’s not something that holds up in modern times. The AI manipulation plot was interesting enough, but I did not find it sufficiently compelling on its own to support the novel as a whole.