Tag Archives: culture

Book Review: Player of Games (Iain M. Banks 1988)

In this review, I avoid spoilers, but since nothing really happens in this book for about 100 pages, that means some of the things I mention do happen a good percentage into the book.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Iain M. Banks Culture series is renowned for its great far future space operas and artificial intelligences. I like space operas and I like artificial intelligences, so I picked Player of Games as one of Iain Banks well-rated books on amazon.

I almost didn’t make it through this book. The main character, Gurgeh, is a professional game player who lives in a wonderful castle on a wonderful world with other people who like games and parties. They live in the Culture, the future civilization of humans (and presumably others) that is mostly controlled by artificial intelligences.

We don’t start the book with the Culture, we start it with Gurgeh. Gurgeh (whose name kept reminding me of Gurgi from The Black Cauldron) is famous across the Culture for the fact he can play basically any game and almost always win. The entire first 75 pages are consumed by Gurgeh’s ennui and partying. I hated these 75 pages.

Then the book picks up. We get to see more of the Culture, and eventually a different civilization called the Azad. The Azad are a barbaric people whose society rotates around a game called Azad. The Culture sends Gurgeh to go play Azad against the Azad.

This isn’t a book for character development or sparkling prose, it’s a book with neat ideas. Azad is neat, the Culture is neat, and the interactions between the two lifestyles was neat. The drones are interesting. I liked the Azad planet Echronedal, which is always on fire.

I really enjoyed the last 200 pages of the book; it was full of fun and interesting things. I want to read more Culture books in the future. But I don’t want to read this one again and I would recommend it only with the caveats above. I didn’t find the posturing and sparring in games that I didn’t know and didn’t mean anything to the protagonist either. But obviously a lot of people loved this book and probably enjoyed the early game play.

The people who recommended Banks to me compared him to Vernor Vinge, whom I love. I can see why people would compare the two, but Player of Games didn’t stack against my favorite Vinge books. We’ll see what I think about future Culture books.

Food and science: Our international food

The food we eat today may have been grown on the farm next door or in Chile or in Ethiopia. But thousands of years ago, their ancestors grew wild somewhere. The plants we eat originate from around the world.

Before recently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I never appreciated the difficulty of the domestication of plants. Only a handful of plants comprise the majority of our crop production and calorie consumption. Even in thousands of years, many plants have never been domesticated. A domestic plant is a precious thing; without domestic plants, civilization would probably not have arisen.

Scientists can determine the likely wild origins of crop foods by the location of genetically similar wild plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate, and chile peppers all come from the Americas. Sugar cane comes from India and New Guinea. Rice and soybeans are from China. Onions are from present-day Iran. Cashews are from Brazil.

Pecans are from the Mississippi valley, but they were not grown commercially until the 1880s! Macadamia nuts were the sole domesticated food from Australia, and they were not grown commercially until the 1880s either.

Although these plants come from around the world, you wouldn’t know it from our cuisines and cultures today. Italian food and tomato sauce, the Irish Potato famine, cashews and pineapples and chiles in Thai fried-rice, Belgian chocolate… Although humans have trouble domesticating plants, we are good at adopting them. In antiquity, similar adoptions happened with wheat and rice and millet. For discussion of how various plants influenced history, I recommend the book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws.

It piques my curiosity– 200 years ago, pecans and macadamia nuts were wild. 500 years ago, most of the world didn’t know chocolate or potatoes or tomatoes. With modern science, what will be a dietary staple in 100 years?

Sources of Sci-Fi Inspiration: City Culture of Prague

Setting is a critical element to most stories. It frames the actions of the characters and provides a rich and interesting backdrop. Often the environment motivates the character. As most portraits of people would be less interesting on a white backdrop, most stories of people would less interesting without the setting. New Orleans gives Ignatius a good playground in “A Confederacy of Dunces;” “White Fang” would be reduced hugely without the north, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would be slightly different without the asylum.

As a writer of science fiction, setting is both a problem and one of my favorite things. How do you draw in the culture and idiosyncrasies of a place that doesn’t exist? They have to be imagined, and imagined plausibly, by the writer. All of my favorite science fiction books have strong settings: In “The Left Hand of Darkness“, we learn about the sexual culture of a differently gendered humanoid species. Through their myths and traditions, we get to learn how they eat, how they like their weather, what is taboo, and what is an insult. In “A Canticle for Leibowitz“, we start at a Catholic abbey in post-apocalyptic New Mexico several centuries in the future. In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress“, the setting is a lunar colony that feels bullied by earth. We learn about their principles, their marriages, and their aspirations. They can be a little closer to home, too. In “Holy Fire“, the protagonist travels from future San Francisco to future Munich to future Prague. Some sci-fi stays closer yet to home, but I find that I love crazy settings; thus I prefer Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep” to his “Rainbow’s End“. (For others see my top 20 scifi books post.)

When I write my stories, I don’t want the settings to feel like the Midwestern United States plopped onto Mars or Alpha Centauri. I want them to feel like products of their interstellar, future environments. So I try to understand how settings influence culture currently and historically. I spent a summer in Prague, and in that brief time I tried to learn what I could about the culture. I tried to go where the Czechs go, eat what they ate, and read what they read. My host in town was a retired Czech professor who liked to talk (derisively) about the communist days. I worked half days at a chemistry lab out in suburban Prague. One of my coworkers smoked at her desk only feet from various chemicals and dressed like a 60-year-old teenager. I took frequent walks to Vyšehrad, an ancient fortress in Prague (pictured below).

I most appreciated the Czech sense of humor. As a country often conquered, the country developed a strange sense of absurdism. Under the Petrin Tower in Prague, there is a museum to Jara Cimrman, the best Czech man, who never existed. I can hardly say I understand everything there is to know about Prague and Czech culture, but a few months there certainly showed me a type of people I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully this will aid me in constructing a people we haven’t met before.

Some worthy Czech reading:

Side note: No post this past Friday; I broke my toe and then I had a lot of traveling to do this weekend. Happily, the toe is already much improved, and today it’s 80 F (25 C) out.