I’m a relative newbie to the Culture series by Iain Banks, but I’m making up for lost time by finishing The Player of Games right after Consider Phlebas. I’m very impressed with the Culture universe, and I’m eager to read more.
The Player of Games follows the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the Culture’s premier player of games (hence the title). He is approached by the Contact branch of the society, who deal in contact with new cultures. They have found a game being played on the fringes of known space, in the Empire of Azad, that is more complex and dense than anything in the culture, and the outcome of the game determines who leads the Empire. Contact wants Gurgeh to enter the tournament and play on behalf of the Culture.
Gurgeh is initially skeptical of the offer, and turns down the first overtures. After an attempt to cheat goes wrong he is blackmailed into taking Contact’s offer. After traveling several years to Azad, preparing all the way, he is confronted by a completely alien culture and style of game. Though initially mediocre, Gurgeh starts climbing up the game boards and starts to attract the attention of those higher up in the Empire.
This book was an entertaining read from start to finish, and it really filled in the gaps I had about the Culture. I still think Consider Phlebas was the right starting point, but The Player of Games was in depth enough about the culture of the Culture that it all makes sense.
The Culture is anarchic, and they’ve made it into a utopia because of it. They have no money really to speak of, people can change sexes at will, you can drop anything and spend years traveling the galaxy to come back to the life you left behind. Indeed, there is a whole cult of celebrity, as well as academic institutions, around the playing of games.
Iain Banks has created a rich world for his characters to explore, and this one is great because the Culture is explained through its stark contrast with the Empire of Azad.
Gurgeh is at times a bit of a flat character, he is so intently serious about gaming that the story seems to swirl around him while he is in a bubble. That being said, the supporting characters make this a very interesting story. Flere-Imsaho made me laugh on multiple occasions, and really lightened the story for me.
Typical of a Culture book, though, some events are so over the top it is hard to conceive how they fit. Without going into too much detail, the Empire is a cruel, harsh place where being low on the social scale means you are submitted to some of the worst indignities. Banks has a tendency to make me feel uncomfortable when I’m reading, but it fits this hedonistic anarchic culture of the Culture universe.
It doesn’t distract from the story, which was paced well and held my interest the entire time. I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in SciFi; I was satisfied in the end, and that is the best praise I can give a book.
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About the reviewer
Ian Peterson (scifireader)
I write a Science Fiction culture blog called SciFiReaders.
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InThe Player of Games, Iain M. Banks presents a distant future that could almost be called the end of history. Humanity has filled the galaxy, and thanks to ultra-high technology everyone has everything they want, no one gets sick, and no one dies. It's a playground society of sports, stellar cruises, parties, and festivals. Jernau Gurgeh, a famed master game player, is looking for something more and finds it when he's invited to a game tournament at a small alien empire. Abruptly Banks veers into different territory. The Empire of Azad is exotic, sensual, and vibrant. It has space battle cruisers, a glowing court--all the stuff of good old science fiction--which appears old-fashioned in contrast to Gurgeh's home. At first it's a relief, but further exploration reveals the empire to be depraved and terrifically unjust. Its defects are gross exaggerations of our own, yet they indict us all the same. Clearly Banks is interested in the idea of a future where everyone can be mature and happy. Yet it's interesting to note that in order to give us this compelling adventure story, he has to return to a more traditional setting. Thoughtful science fiction readers will appreciate the cultural comparisons, and fans of big ideas and action will also be rewarded.--Brooks Peck