I have wanted to read one of the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks for quite a while and one that sounded particularly interesting to me was The Player of Games. Unfortunately, that particular title was difficult to find in the U.S. — until it was reprinted here a couple of months ago. I am very glad it was since this is definitely one of the better novels I have read this year, containing layers and depth without ever becoming too dry or a chore to read.
Gurgeh has a talent for mastering strategy, making him one of the best professional game players in the known universe. In fact, games no longer present a challenge to him, causing him to look for new thrills to ease his boredom. He does not find any until a machine from Contact visits him and briefly questions him about his willingness to go on a voyage. Since he hates traveling, Gurgeh states he would not be interested, but a psychotic robot blackmails him into developing an acquaintance with Contact. Once Gurgeh finds out the mysterious trip is to a secret empire whose entire culture is based on an intricate game, his curiosity is piqued.
The game and life are so intertwined that both the empire and the game have the same name – Azad. Ability to play the game during a large tournament determines people’s placement in society – those who play well get better positions and the last man standing achieves the honor of becoming Emperor. Members of this society learn to play the complicated game from the time they are very young since becoming skillful at it requires years of practice. The Culture’s premiere game player has found just the occupation he was looking for – learning to play this elaborate game during his two year journey to Azad.
This book was very easy for me to get into, particularly since the first half a page immediately drew me in. There was a slow part toward the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two, but other than that, the story sucked me in more and more as I read. I was riveted and unable to put the book down for the last 100 pages or so.
At first, I found the prose very straightforward and to the point, but some of the descriptions toward the end of the novel made me change my mind. Banks has a gift for painting a visual picture without being verbose and getting his point across succinctly. He is very much a “show not tell” author and his characters were well done through their conversations and actions without pages of description about every thought and feeling.
The setting and atmosphere were the highlights of The Player of Games. The Culture is a lawless utopia in which humans and sentient machines live together in harmony. (Well, almost – the machines are allowed to develop random personalities which can result in conflicts with smartass robots.) In contrast, under its glamorous sheen, the Empire is an amalgam of all the worst aspects seen throughout our world – racism, sexism, violence, and general cruelty all run rampant in this society. Both of these cultures were fascinating, particularly the way in which Banks twisted them. The Empire may be horrible, but the Culture is hardly perfect in spite of its lofty ideals.
The author does not shy away from disturbing depictions but they are told with a sort of flippancy. It’s just the way it is and that’s how he tells it without spending time elaborating on how horrifying it is. Brutality is not all there is, though, as the conversations between characters are often sarcastic and humorous (although some of the humor can be a bit dark).
The Player of Games is intelligent science fiction with a wonderfully realized setting. It manages to be profound and entertaining simultaneously. I highly recommend this novel and will certainly be reading more books in this series.