Thursday, July 18, 2013

Horsey to king prawn

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The About: Jernau Gurgeh is a game player. That's his skill: he is incredibly good at games. He's sort of a superstar, actually, which gets him into trouble: forced by an offer he cannot refuse, he travels years away to take part in a game that extends beyond the board; a game of savagery, moral outrage and good old political plotting; a game that will determine the future of an entire civilization.

Thoughts: I'll ramble a bit, because Iain Banks is dead and we can't read fresh words from him ever again.

Sci-fi is my favorite out of often sneeringly called "genre literature," mostly because of this slightly depressing reason: it seems that only by imagining humanity in way, way out in the future is it easy for us readers to engage in stories that do not lean on old tropes, especially when it comes to gender. Even fantasy still uses traditional gender roles no matter how fantastical the setting is.

In Banks's Culture, humans are advanced enough not to care about such details: they can change their biological sex at a whim. It's a society where biology does not determine skills or worth--or to be more accurate, where nobody expects a human being to have a certain skill set just because they have a certain set of sexual organs.

But that is not the only reason I have reread this novel after hearing of Banks's untimely death.

He was a good writer. Bear with me.

Not just once would one find me and my husband (if for some reason barging in...?) in the bathroom before bedtime, brushing teeth and quoting passages of amazing writing to each other, and just marveling at how good Banks is.

How to describe it? It's hard, because he is defined perhaps more by what he never does: his stories lack flowery prose and pretentious vocabulary that reeks of the author just browsing through a thesaurus and selecting something, anything, that would sound somehow more special than what actually would be appropriate; he only uses cliched metaphors if it is an intentional wink at the reader. He does not create a shroud of ambiguity for lack of being able to write beautifully with clarity.

I guess that's it. He knows usage--when and what is appropriate. All of his characters have a distinct voice without tropes such as fake accents or stuttering. Not once was I confused about who was talking.

Banks is also just damned funny. To describe a character he may use a single word that is refreshing, absolutely spot on, and that one word is all that is needed for great big belly laughs. He also gets away with naming his characters with the most ridiculous names that seem entirely plausible and not just sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and strained efforts at using, let's say, clicks from an African language to create an uncomfortable exoticism. I mean, Jernau Gurgeh? This is magic!

The only downside to reading Banks--whether it is his sci-fi or his non-sci-fi work--is that anything read immediately after feels like crap. I need to apologize in advance for anything I will write about The Skinner, because I can't move a page without righteous annoyance at word choices in an otherwise fine story. "He grinned a grin"?? Seriously, that's the best you can do? Iaiiiiiiiin!

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