The second Culture book is popularly regarded as the most straightforward. It’s certainly, disregarding the short stories, the most tightly focused plot-wise (Use of Weapons obviously does very smart things, but in terms of an individual journey from A to B this one goes for it in the most direct manner).* Jernau Morat Gurgeh accepts a mission and fulfills it, and interesting stuff happens along the way.
Well, Guegeh gets to find out, and along the way learns important life lessons, loses his innocence, accepts responsibility, and eventually gets the girl/man/hermaphrodite of his dreams. I think I missed that bildungsroman aspect when I first read it, focusing more on the sociopolitical commentary (I also doubt I knew the word ‘bildungsroman’). Unfortunately it meant I missed lots of little details such as Gurgeh’s genofixing adapting his body to a high-G environment – “his bones were rapidly thickening and his musculature was expanding” – which happens in the final third of the book and is a very neat little conceit; linking the final spurt of his personal growth with what physically amounts to a crash-course in puberty:
‘Hadn’t you noticed you were getting more thick-set?’ the drone said in exasperation, while Gurgeh studied his body in the room mirror.
Gurgeh shook his head. ‘I did think I was eating rather a lot.’
Anyway, I say I ‘focused on the sociopolitical commentary’ first time round, but I can’t say hand on heart that I did. I was probably just blown away, in my own personal naivety, by the seedy underbelly that Banks so vividly describes and missed the wider points he was making. The benefit of experience does now make it all look a tad unsubtle, but it’s perhaps no worse for it. In fact, given the continued concentration of wealth that’s occurred in the two and a half decades since this was released it now all seems rather bleakly prescient. Throw in the risible healthcare ‘debate’ in America, Abu Ghriab, and torture porn and you start to wonder if the drone Flere-Imsaho shouldn’t have included Cassandra amongst its many names.
While throughout the series Banks made it perfectly clear where his (and by extension our) sympathies lay – the Culture is not perfect but generally on the side of the angels – this is perhaps the most uncritically pro-Culture book. The opposition civilization in Player, Azed, is pretty blatantly set up as an eeeevil proxy for late twentieth-century capitalism and, after the almost Nietzschean moral greyness in Consider Phlebas, this unapologetic bias is a touch surprising. However, barely twenty pages in Gurgeh gives us this musing:
‘But you see? If somebody wanted a house like this they’d already have had one built; if they wanted anything in the house’ – Gurgeh gestured round the room – ‘they’d have ordered it; they’d have it. With no money, no possessions, a large part of the enjoyment the people who invented this game experienced when they played it just… disappeared.’
In retrospect this is the central conundrum which Banks the author wrestled with in every volume of the Culture: in a setting where everything is possible, how do you make anything matter? The series is bookended at one end by a novel (The Hydrogen Sonata) that wears its shaggy-dog status on its sleeve, and at the other by one which makes a central tenet of the ultimate futility of all human action, but it’s in the second installment (called, appropriately enough, The Player of Games) where he really tipped his hat to the nature of the whole enterprise. It’s all just games, really. The dice are loaded, the deck is stacked, the table is rigged, and everyone knows this to be the case. The Culture will always win, usually through a tech level indistinguishable from magic, so how do you make that interesting for both author and reader? The entire series can be seen as a succession of games played with style and form but that are, ultimately, fairly meaningless. Banks is the player and we are the spectators.
It’s tempting at this point to either spin this out to a needlessly pretentious comment on the whole of literature or even art, or make a pretty tasteless (in the circumstances) point about the inevitability of death and failure being perhaps the one thing that does indubitably invest human endeavour with meaning. Discretion is the better part of valour, however, so I’ll leave it there. Use of Weapons is up next and I can’t wait.
*Obviously any assertions I make are based on what memories I have from reading stuff the first time round, and their reliability or not should be assessed accordingly.