Living Chess in Portmeirien, 2007 (Chess.com)
If “Nobody is [God]” (Complicity (1996) p. 303), nobody has reliable knowledge of whether their actions will matter, or how they will matter, in the long run. One sensible-seeming route is to try to carve a small, resistant enclave within the universe’s grand complexity, for which and within which it is possible to take moral responsibility.
The importance of games to an author with the materialist predilections and preoccupations which I’ve already outlined may relate to the contrast that games provide to matter: overt abstraction, rather than mystifying reduction; a small scale, not a grand historical one; and a hermetic system of incontrovertible values. Once a point within a game within is won, it stays won, whereas any commendable action may be controverted into a reprehensible action retrospectively, when seen against a grand historical sweep.
But if games are a counterpoint to matter, Banks takes pains to ensure they’re an untidy one. Games in Banks's books frequently disregard their boundaries, and refuse to have outcomes which can only be internally adjudicated.
In Surface Detail (2010), for instance, issues over which wars might otherwise be fought are settled in immersive simulated realities, with suffering but without loss of life. As it happens, the party with whom the reader is likely to sympathise break the convention during the course of the novel, escalating the war into the material world.
More subtly, in Inversions (1998), DeWar and Perrund, a royal bodyguard and concubine respectively, form a friendship and indeed perhaps conduct a kind of courtship not only over but through countless bouts of a board game called Leader’s Dispute. Here, styles of play may be psychologically revelatory: for instance, as in Perrund’s charge that DeWar over-prioritises a particular piece, or her hearsay with respect to the dissembling hustler YetAmidous.
Player of Games (1988) portrays a civilisation whose political system is almost entirely encapsulated within a complicated game, evolved over millenia. The escalation of politics beyond this game’s boundaries seems unlikely, insofar as ideological deliberation is one dimension of gameplay. For individuals of this civilisation it is difficult to conceive of a political argument being stronger or weaker, more or less worthy of passionate loyalty, except in the context of its deployment within the game. The eponymous protagonist is a visitor from another civilisation, who overthrows the political system with an unprecedented style of play.
Untidy and spookily efficacious games are not, of course, confined to Iain M[aterialist] Banks's work. Iain Banks's Stonemouth (2012) includes the example of a Wee Malky, whose life is ended by a paintball bullet. Alban, the protagonist of The Steep Approach to Gabardale (2007), seeks to persuade his family's Extraordinary General Meeting not to sell their business to a voracious American corporation. Their business is based on a board game, Empire!, but Alban's behaviour itself, for all that it manifests an authentic moral dialectic, also has a distinctly gamified feel to it. (And Alban's mission to win (over) the EGM is in turn, in good family saga fashion, the occasion for all manner of intrigue, emotion, lust, vendetta, manipulation, revelation, and allegory of US oil imperialism).
For instance, another character in Stonemouth, Phelpie, is known is for taking excruciatingly long over his Poker moves. One possibility raised is that Phelpie is rather ponderously working through some probability mathematics, instead of playing instinctively; but there is a countersuggestion that Phelpie’s style of play is grounded sentimentally in extra-game factors: he likes to slow down the whole social situation, to blur and broaden what can be a macho, narrow competitive focus on the game. Either way, when he leaps on a gunsel in the novel’s dénouement, Phelpie’s transposition of his technique of card-counting into the more dangerous game of counting the number of rounds fired does not go as planned.
Indeed, one gets the sense with Banks that a game is not necessarily a rule-governed practice so much an area in which various practices overlap and support each other with sufficient density to give rise to rules, which thereafter have a reflexive but always provisional effect on the zone of overlap. What is necessary for a game to exist is not consensus, but certain forms of family resemblance among the various normative regimes inhabited by different players. Any move is by definition a move in several different games at once.
In this sense I think Banks’s games are archetypal of a whole suite of imperfect models, heuristics and dynamic idealisations with which the complications of materiality are necessarily confronted, but which that materiality inevitably exceeds.
I would include the resources of genre in this category . . .
The paper went on to discuss genre, which was an okay direction to take it, but perhaps a better progression would be to explore Banks's coding and decoding conceits: messages manifest in pelvic squeezes, guano, gangster dentistry, laser scars, etc. I feel like there's an exciting nexus in Banks's books involving codes, games, chaos, and the space operatic grand scale. Maybe I'll get round to it eventually.
In 2010, speaking at Transgressions & Its Limits at Stirling University, Banks was asked about the possibility of Culture movie. His response was that that would be fine and everything, but he'd probably be more interested in a game.