Last post I talked about Consider Phlebas, the first book in the Culture series. You should check out the review if you haven’t, but the general gist was: a kind of boring book, written by an incredibly talented author, that primed me to dive into Phlebas’ sequels. After finishing Plebas I immediately jumped into books two, Player of Games, and three, Use of Weapons. Both of these books continue to showcase Banks’ incredible skill as an author, with his fantastic characters, intense immersion, and philosophical questions – but they also have engrossing plots that make them much more enjoyable reads.
Both the books follow a similar sort of set up; an agent of the Culture is assigned to go to a foreign empire and steer it in the direction the Culture wants through espionage and subversion. Player of Games follows Gurgeh, a Culture celebrity famous for his ability to win any game, as he is recruited by Culture leadership and sent to a despotic empire that determines who rules through a solar system sized game. Use of Weapons follows Cheradenine, a Culture mercenary hired for his problem solving skills, and chronicles the various societies he was/is inserted into over his life and the things he has done to steer them where the Culture wants. The two books share a number of striking similarities and differences that made me want to review them together; let’s start by talking about Player of Games.
As I mentioned, PoG follows a celebrity turned spy as he is sent to the Azad Empire. The entire solar system power structure is determined by a complicated game (called Azad) and he has been allowed to enter and compete as an ambassador for the Culture so that the Azad people can size up their intergalactic rivals. Both of these books are about culture clash, but in slightly different ways (and I really wish Banks had named his empire something else because I am using “culture” like 600 times in each of these posts). Player of Games is about a sheltered citizen of the Culture and his journey to understand how the world works outside the bubble he has lived in. Gurgeh is witty, relatable, lovable, and a delightful character to follow. I grew attached to him instantly, and was extremely invested in his journey and competition in Azad. The book is filled to the brim with commentary on society, philosophical debates, and interesting observations about people. Azad is a society that fairly resembles a capitalist dictatorship and it allows for some stark and eye opening observations about the way our world currently works. The games themselves are less the focus of the novel compared to Gurgeh’s personal journey – which was both beautiful and touching. In the end, the book touched my heart and made me question my values – both things I highly prize in a reading experience.
Then we have Use of Weapons. Right off the bat, Use of Weapons won a point with me due to its unique narration style. The story doesn’t start at the beginning, or the end, of Cher’s life – but in the middle. There are two timelines that alternate by chapter; one working backwards telling you how Cher came to be who he is (and leading to a largely foreshadowed secret he’s hiding) and one working forwards telling you what he is doing now and showing the problems he is solving. It was a very original structure that worked extremely well for the book. Unlike Gurgeh, Cher is a spy trained to subvert societies and his story details many different people and places he infiltrated. Additionally, while Use of Weapons also intensely focuses on culture clash, Cher is a non-Culture mercenary and the story is told from the perspective of someone trying to understand the Culture’s way of life (the reverse of Player of Games). While I didn’t enjoy the plot of Use of Weapons as much as Games, the books narration style and emotional stories made up for it. The entire time I was reading Weapons I got this foreboding feeling that not everything was as it seems and that I was missing something important (which I was, but I won’t spoil what). Weapons’ subtle language and Banks’ attention to atmospheric details create a cunning and manipulative book that will send you on an emotional roller coaster. Much like PoG, it was a great read that made me want to dive into the series more, but these books both had a meta-theme that made me want to talk about them together.
I recently read Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a great classic science fiction novel defined by a set of points and arguments that Heinlein wants to make, and the novel strongly argues and posits the merits of those points. This is usually how most books work, the author has an argument to make, and uses his book to prove his point. But I feel like Banks missed that memo. A recurring theme in both Player of Games and Use of Weapons (and if I am being honest, Consider Phlebas as well) is Banks making a strong philosophical argument, then shooting it in the foot. He loves to destroy his own arguments and find flaws with every single possible side of a conversation. He has an uncanny ability to spend 100 pages convincing you to believe a thing, and then immediately showing you why that argument was wrong. However, he will then go back and reprove his original argument – then disprove it again. Over and over, Banks has had me flip-flopping on my opinions and convictions as I read his books and its gotten to the point where I no longer know what I believe. Despite the fact that the Culture books are stylized as isolated novels that have almost no overlap except the universe they take place in, I get the distinct sense that there is a bigger puzzle here. Each of the Culture books seem to provide a different angle to think about a single big question: what is the best kind of society? The result is that, despite being a series of ten stand alone books, I feel like I am reading one gigantic novel and that I have only just gotten started on my journey. I can’t wait to see what Banks has in store for me next.
Player of Games – 9.5/10
Use of Weapons – 8.5/10