I mentioned somewhat earlier that I recently read Iain M. Banks’ “Player of Games” and it challenged my outlook on science fiction. I can elaborate somewhat on that.
Frankly, my type of sci-fi over the last few years has been pretty narrow. I’ve read a lot of cyberpunk, near-future, mostly predictive kind of stuff. Charles Stross goes off the reservation a bit, but for the most part it stayed down to Earth, both in subject matter and setting. I decided to pick up Banks’ Culture novels again around the time that Banks passed away last year, as I read many who reflected on the impact or influence his books had had on their lives. Up to that point, it had not rang true for me exactly. I read “Consider Phlebas”, the first Culture novel, in college, and though I enjoyed the setting, it kind of ran away from me. The characters were odd and the moral argument being made about the Culture was ambiguous at best. I later read one of his literary books, “The Bridge”, and though this actually held my attention better than “Consider Phlebas”, it was bizarre and once again I wasn’t getting the point.
Enter “Player of Games”.
The main character, Jernau Gurgeh, is a man in the Culture who enjoys playing games, is so good at them he is bored by it, and to make it all worse, he’s effectively immortal and doesn’t know what to do with himself. After brooding around his estate on a planet-sized spinning disk, he gets himself into a bit of bother and ends up volunteering to fly light years away to the Azadian Empire, a non-Culture people whose entire society is built around a game. The set-up couldn’t be more perfect.
Well, perfect setup or not, what makes the book great is how perfectly it pulls you into this setting. In addition to introducing the norms of the objectively bizarre Culture as the standard, it brings in an entire counter-weight in the form of the Azadian empire, and lets you sit right in the middle of the (C)ulture clash. As soon as I read this book I immediately understood why Banks’ science fiction work is so lauded. He takes a society built on seeming impossibilities (completely post-scarcity, no money, no laws, no real death other than suicide) and makes (if not forces) the reader to relate to it. And it works! The worldbuilding was a work of art, and I didn’t quite appreciate it entirely until the book’s conclusion.
And that made me jealous. Banks has created a setting I find amazing. No other major canon has had this effect on me, and I immediately want to figure out not why, but how I can replicate it. And I start to see ideas in my head that are pretty far outside my “five minutes into the future” brainstormed norms.
I don’t believe anyone should take this to mean I think I can write like Banks, or even that I want to. But he took what I thought was a fairly flaccid genre, and propped it right up for me.He’s neither the first nor last great interstellar world-builders of science fiction, but for some reason he’s the one that grabbed me. The full potential of crafting not just a future but an entire other reality in which to place your writing has been lost on me, but that’s likely because I hadn’t thought about it deeply enough. It’s too easy to make a story set among the stars that just gets lost in its own setting…that’s arguably what pulp sci-fi is. But when you create a whole new context for your characters to exist in and to react to, that’s when you’ve truly built a world. And that’s what I want to do.