I just finished my fourth Iain Banks novel, his most famous, The Player of Games. This is the one that I think would probably best be made into a movie. That's because, of the four, it's the simplest and most straightforward.
It's clear that Banks has been (this being his second of the Culture series) making it up as he goes along. In PoG, as a description of The Culture, he makes it seem to be a great deal more human-centric than it could possibly be. This book works well as an allegorical critique of contemporary society as well, and it could very well do so for some time to come. At the moment, I am wondering if I have some kind of brainy self-satisfaction that readers of Philip K. Dick might have had on the eve of the making of Blade Runner into a film. Much of Banks' future I am using as a sort of framework for What Can Be. I think I'm onto some things but I've only just begun.
You see, last summer, my best friend at a remove came to town. He's an AI researcher who is privy to some national security stuff and is doing well in advancing his career that-a-way. He has also done remarkably well in evading the inevitable lines of query, as well he should. Still, there is an appreciable gap between those who think about doing and those who do. Naturally we have only the foggiest notions of what we are on about in our respective industries even on the subjects we can mutually gab about. But one thing he did many years back was introduce me to one of my favorite books of all time, Cryptonomicon. So I thought he might do something of that order again. My love hate relationship with sci-fi is all love now, considering that I'm reading the more literate of the literature. I asked for something thick and considerable, and he gave me Banks. What I hope is that my imagination can be inspired in the same ways that those responsible for thinking about doing on the cutting edge of what is possible in computing. Now I have some bigger ideas, whereas two years ago I might have been thinking of the future in terms of product cycles.
All this has to do with Gurgeh, the protagonist, in a circular fashion. Like most merry metrosexuals in our decadent society, his greatest challenges are certainly as erudite as one might hope - however they have nothing to do with life or death. The practical application of all of the knowledge of our infoverse (Google + Wiki + whatever) hardly gets us to any greater understanding of how power is applied for our benefit. I certainly read that allegory into the dilemma of the post-scarcity, post-post-modern human. When most of the drama has been removed from our lives, should we bother to test ourselves? Gurgeh lives out that question unconsciously as he takes a dare and challenges the entire hierarchs of an empire to the very game upon which their society's power is based. He does so, unwittingly, as a pawn in a much greater game. We witness him change as this fascinating game unfolds.
I have long been fascinated, deeply as I am leveraged by the compute world, in human willingness to take the abstractions of life at face value. So I am returned in many ways to the dance around the semiotic swamp. I do so with a bit of tongue in cheek. On the one hand I understand, as surely every grown man must, that life can come down to blows at any time. Anyone who thinks they live in the Matrix only needs to be waterboarded for that illusion to be shattered. And yet decisions we make through apparatuses which do everything to comfort us can deliver us from evil. It is the central paradox of living in a complex society which aims to and actually is successful in providing material comfort. We all know the idea, like the eTrade baby. Some talking infant makes an online trade through a computer interface and increases his wealth. Some winner of the Super Bowl says five magic words into the camera after victory and makes another small fortune from the coffers of the magic kingdom. Some fraction of humanity is partially there in that stress free world where comfort and security are taken care of simply because it's a good idea. And yet we must be aware at some level that somebody somewhere must pay the price for that good idea, even if it's only the crushing of all their ideas and therefore their way of life and all of their identity. In Iain Banks' future, all of this has been done and except for a few holdout or obscure species. In Player of Games, the view is from The (massive) Culture down to a (puny) Empire. The man of leisure's ethics, and his revulsion over the barbarity of anything that draws actual blood must be finally vindicated by overwhelming force. Or must it? Can you game an inferior society into collapse by beating it at its own game?
There is a great quote in this book that merits repeating and probably incorporation into Cobb's Rules. That is: The corrupt system recognizes no innocents. That hit home for me on a number of levels, not the least of which was my appreciation of the differences between schools for rich kids and schools for poor kids in my own life.