The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Player of Games is the second in the Culture series of sci-fi novels by Iain M Banks. I read the first in the series, Consider Phlebas, early last year. While it was decent enough, it didn’t fill me with a need to immediately read the others. Still, it was good enough to make me want to get around to the next one eventually, hence the delay of over a year until The Player of Games.
Consider Phlebas did introduce quite a few interesting concepts, not least the Culture itself. The Culture is basically a pan-galactic superstate, which governs over a huge amount of space. Contrary to most space-based empires, the Culture isn’t in any way the oppressive evil overlords (at this point in the series anyway, I don’t know if that changes later). It’s the most laissez-faire, egalitarian, utopian society that it’s possible to create. There are no crimes, there’s no prison: order is kept mainly out of politeness, and if you do something horribly wrong, like murder someone, the harshest punishment will be to have a drone assigned to follow you around to make sure you don’t do it again. And you might stop getting invited to parties.
Technology is wildly advanced, with faster-than-light-speed travel commonplace, and a lot of the administration done by AI “Minds”. Less intelligent (but still far more intelligent than people) drones are also common, and are considered to be citizens, just like humans. Even good old-fashioned humans are no longer old-fashioned, with technological advancements and genetic modifications to allow things like regrowth of lost limbs, changing sex at will, and the ability to instantly stimulate or calm yourself with any kinds of drugs that you fancy. Folks live in groups of millions and billions, either on orbitals (think of the big ring planet thingy from the first Halo game, which, now I think about it, might actually be called a Halo) or on vast spaceships.
Basically, the Culture sounds like a pretty decent place and time to be.
The player of games from the title is Jernau Morat Gurgeh (or just Gurgeh), who, unsurprisingly, spends his life playing a variety of games, mainly confined to his home orbital. A drone friend of his agrees to put him in touch with a division within the Culture’s Contact organisation to see if they know of any new games that might interest Gurgeh (what with him being a master of most the ones he knows).
Contact is the organisation that deals with the Culture’s interactions with other civilisations. The division that Gurgeh is put in touch with, Special Circumstances, is, surprisingly, the secretive division within Contact that deals with any situations with special circumstances. When SC get in touch, their entire offer consists of asking whether he’d be willing to travel for a few years. Initially, this doesn’t interest Gurgeh, but circumstances conspire to end up with him basically blackmailed into going.
The trip takes him to the distant empire of Azad, only recently discovered by the Culture. The reason that Gurgeh is the perfect person to visit Azad is their system of governance: the Emperor of Azad is the winner of a tournament of a vastly complex game, also known as Azad. So Gurgeh gets on board a ship, and spends about two years learning the game and travelling to enter the tournament as a guest. He goes all-but-alone, accompanied only by a small translator drone called Flere-Imsaho (think the lightsaber training droid, rather than C-3PO) and the AI Mind of the ship he travels in.
Making the main plot of a book based on an entirely fictional and vastly complex game could lead to a long, dull book filled with lengthy explanations of the rules, detailed commentaries on the matches and barely understood outcomes from this. Instead, Banks keeps things at a more strategic level, so while you always know the overall position of the various stages of the game, you never get bogged down in unintelligible details. This is pulled off so well that Banks is able to have a wildly complex final game without losing any of the impact of the implications of the game.
The plot works, but I think the biggest strength of Player of Games is the player of games himself. Gurgeh is a great character. He gets established strongly at the outset as jaded with his life generally – he still enjoys games, but not as much as he used to. That makes his initial interest in hooking up with Contact to try to find a new game believable, and yet makes his reticence to commit to the trip to Azad also believable. The journey that he goes through as he learns more about Azad (the place), Azad (the game) and about himself leads to him being a significantly different character by the end of the book. It’s an excellent character arc.
One thing that really helps the arc for Gurgeh is that Banks occasionally switches the perspective from Gurgeh to that of his drone companion, Flere-Imsaho. It’s not overdone, but every so often there’s a short section where Flere-Imsaho basically provides a few quick observations about Gurgeh’s mental state, which really helps in focusing on how he’s changing throughout the book. Each section of the book is also preceded by a quick introduction from a mysterious narrator (the identity of whom is revealed at the end, in a twist that isn’t exactly shocking, but is quite nicely executed).
The focus on Gurgeh does mean that other characters get a bit of a short shrift. This is exacerbated a bit by the plot, which means that the first third of the novel (before Gurgeh goes to Azad) develops some characters, but none of those (apart from Gurgeh) really appear in the final two thirds, and vice-versa those characters from the final two thirds just appear a third of the way into the book.. That’s a bit of a shame, because the characters from the opening third all seem quite interesting (particular the droids), and not getting to see much of them after their initial introduction is a bit of a disappointment. That being said, it’s necessary for the story, and Gurgeh’s companion on the trip, Flere-Imsaho is good fun: he’s something of a vague mix between the devil-may-care attitude of R2D2 (fuck you, R2D2 might communicate in beeps, but he has attitude!) and the pernicketyness of C-3PO, which is a decent combination.
The Azadians basically get a singular general character – intelligent, proud, sneaky as all hell and mostly violent motherfuckers. Each Azadian that appears for any length of time tends to have a combination of those attributes in varying degrees. The Azadian culture as a whole does have an arc, in that they tend to become smarter, prouder, sneakier and more prone to violent motherfuckery as the story continues and the stakes increase. It’s a pretty interesting decision, to have the culture reveal itself as a whole through a progression of characters, rather than to have it revealed through the progression of one character, and I quite liked that. I can’t think of too many other places I’ve seen that.
All in all, The Player of Games is a good book. It opens strongly, introducing Gurgeh and his general attitude towards games and life pretty well, and the plot trots along at a pretty fair clip. From the start of the tournament, it’s pretty obvious where the plot will be heading, although the specifics of how the plot winds up are pretty fantastic. It won’t be another year until I read the third Culture book.
I’d definitely recommend reading The Player of Games, although I’m not sure you need to read Consider Phlebas first. I thought that was pretty average, but it did introduce a lot of concepts that you kind of need to know. I think the best bet might be to just skip Consider Phlebas, and read The Player of Games with an internet connection nearby, so that anything that it just dumps on you and expects you to understand from the previous book you can just read up about quickly on Wikipedia. That would probably be anything about the Culture, although I think the first few paragraphs of this review probably cover the basics.
Read if you like: Sci-fi, politics
Don’t read if you like: Probably anything that isn’t sci-fi or politics.
Next up: Storm Front by Jim Butcher.