Friday, December 30, 2011

Player of Games

My colleague's book club dumped The Player Of Games, by Iain M. Banks, on her reading list. "I'm really going to hate this", she said, "not my cup of tea at all".

"It's one of my favourite Culture novels", I said, "I must re-read it". Which I did with great pleasure, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear positive reports the following week. OK, so he's sold a few copies but I thought it was a specialist thing. Perhaps I'm underestimating his quality as a writer.

His commonly-used background culture, called (er, what shall we call it?) The Culture has been well-discussed. It's essentially a post-shortage society, which means that they have all the energy and matter they need. No shortage, no money, (almost) no problems. Tiny sarcastic flying robots that can do almost anything, including saving your life if you fall over a cliff. Enormous sentient spaceships that can do everything else. Banks has stated its origins as a hypothetical society where everything is organised how he would want it to be. Banks is, like me I suppose, a bit of an anarchist so it's almost the opposite of a fascist dictatorship.

The Player of Games, may well, as an essay in realpolitik, be about the way in which the powers that be get their way without seeming to use their weight. Poor old Gurgeh, the wizard of all games, he suspects he's being used. And he is, not only for his mastery of games, but for his naive approach to everything else. But he doesn't seem to mind being a pawn in the end.

The amusing bits of Culture novels are often about its limitless entertainments. You want a firework display the size of a canyon? OK then. You want to surf down a waterfall, without breaking your neck? OK then. There never seems to be any hassle, or queues, or tickets, or cops.

I had a tiny taste of this when we were in Austria for a short break. Parts of Austria are extremely well organised and neat, and at the same time laid back. E.g., when it snows, the roads are cleared within a couple of hours, and the buses all keep going. I've no idea if the following is typical.

On an an afternoon walk in the bright snow, about two miles from the village, we stopped for a coffee and strudel at a forest cafe. Someone in our party spotted a stack of toboggans of various sizes outside. Are they for hire? A school party's?

It turned out these were just laid on, for general use, for free. Having been ridden down to the village, they could be stacked against a barn at the end of the lane, and would be returned by a tractor at intervals.

This is perhaps a side-effect of the outdoor industries of the Tirol (all the serious neck-breakers are busy sking nearby, and the village knows the value of competing for entertainment), but can you imagine this in, say, in Surrey or Yorkshire? (Assuming regular snow). No insurance disclaimers. No Deposits. No chains and guard rails. No, er, chavs. Just good old playful fun:

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