#56 – The Player of Games – Iain M Banks

Player of Games

I had never heard of Ian M. Banks before starting this novel – which isn’t really saying much because I’m woefully out of touch with the new crop of modern Sci-fi superstars. But with two separate books of his on my top 100 list, I knew that he had to be doing something right. After finishing The Player of Games, I think I understand what that ‘something‘ is. Banks’ writing style is imaginative and playful, while still maintaining a biting edge of sarcasm and wit. His universe is populated by characters (both human and machine) who are fiercely independent and unique, while still being connected emotionally to the society that helped create them. And his exploration of the benefits and drawbacks of the anarchist utopia known simply as “The Culture” is endlessly fascinating. If you’re looking for an exciting and intellectually stimulating story with a sense of humor and something to say, The Player of Games is a good place to start.

Set in the same universe that Banks sets a lot of his stories (I learned), the book tells the story of the greatest game player in the Culture, one Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The novel begins on the Chiark Orbital, an artificial ring-shaped world that rotates through space in order to simulate gravity and provide an atmosphere. The population of Chiark (and the Culture in general) is made up of a mix of humans, sentient machines, and other alien species – each of which share equal status in society. In a post-scarcity society in which almost all of its citizen’s material needs and wants are taken care of, intellectual pursuits such as art, music, poetry, and games flourish. But while games may be a popular past time in the Culture, and successful game players admired and respected, the fiercely egalitarian nature of the society means that the stakes of these games aren’t particularly high. Because there is so little to lose on the outcome of each game, there is also so little to win. Since money is non-existent and fame is hollow, Gurgeh starts to feel despondent. He not only wants to win every game, he wants it to mean something too. And through a series of unfortunate events, Gurgeh gets his wish.

Things start to unravel when Gurgeh accepts unfair help from a drone robot named Mawhrin-Skel in a game that Gurgeh has the potential to win in a spectacular fashion never before seen in the Culture. Although Gurgeh fails, the drone uses a recording of his deceit to blackmail Gurgeh into helping it get readmitted to the secret service wing of the Culture, called Special Circumstances. While Gurgeh is weighing his options and dreading the humiliation that the drone’s revelations could inflict on him, he gets a strange visit from a representative of the same organization who offers him the chance to take part in a very unique game. The only catch? He will have to travel over two years to the Empire of Azad where he will be playing a game so long, complicated, and involved, that the winner is crowned the ruler of the Empire. Fascinated by the potential challenge and wary of the blackmail threat, Gurgeh agrees to participate.

During the journey, we learn that the Culture has a strange relationship with the Empire of Azad. Although the Empire is powerful and far-reaching, they have yet to reach the technological prowess of the Culture. They are still very much a society in which there are haves and have-nots, with a rigid social structure and caste system not unlike our own. While Gurgeh is being sent to play the game as some sort of cultural ambassador, we get the sense that this is also a chance for the Culture to study the Empire from afar – to get a sense of whether they pose a legitimate threat or not. And as Gurgeh begins to compete in the game and actually starts winning (against players who have trained their entire life), the seems of political intrigue and strife among the Empire’s elite begin to show.

As an avid game player myself (board games mostly, not video games), I thoroughly enjoyed the white knuckled competition and combat aspects of the book. And while Banks doesn’t actually reveal exactly how the game is played, he gives enough details and flourishes to keep you invested in the dance and drama of two minds going at each other to determine who is superior. Astute readers will likely see many metaphorical parallels between the game and our own society’s obsession with competition and rankings, whether between individuals or nations – and that’s fine. But this is also a novel that can be enjoyed as a meditation on the nature of power, politics and leadership, as well as how societies are often structured to reflect their unique values and beliefs. But no matter your view on what the prefect social structure is, I’m sure you’ll find something to enjoy in Banks’ quirky universe.

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