The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Published in 1988
Genre: Science fiction
“This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game.”
If one ever wanted to boil down the plot of The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks, into a single, succinct sentence, the quote above couldn’t be beat. This book, being the second in the Culture series, follows a player of games into an alien and dangerous empire built upon the structure of an intricate and difficult game. With information being spoon fed to the protagonist, it makes for a compelling story and thriller that builds up to the climax on a planet with a wave of fire that circles the globe. Not all is as it seems when the Culture’s Contact division gets involved, and the player must learn to either win the game or be consumed by it.
Gurgeh, the protagonist, is known as a player of games; he ever forgets a rule once it has been learned and has built up a reputation for himself, which leads to invitations to teach at universities and challenges from other players. Gurgeh has become disillusioned with the lack of competition; he wants something more challenging and is referred to Contact, the branch of the Culture that deals with other societies. Gurgeh cheats and is blackmailed into helping a drone named Mawhrin-Skel regain its abilities and responsibilities within Contact. In order to do this, he agrees to travel to the empire of Azad and play in their game-based-society.
The Azad empire is comprised of three sexes: male, female, and apex. These form the layers of its social hierarchy with apices in the ruling class, males as their subordinates, and females holding the bottom rung. They are extremely formal and their society is built upon the structure of a game that each citizen spends their entire life learning to play. The expectation is that Gurgeh will come in and be defeated easily, allowing the Culture to maintain the false pretense of being as underdeveloped as the Azad Empire; however, not everything goes according to plan as Gurgeh finds himself adapting to the new system.
The Azad Empire is a unique society in its structure based on the control of others. The ruling class is composed of nearly sadistic humanoids who find pleasure in the knowledge and action of controlling others. As such, this plays into the game that decides social and military positions for the remainder of the next cycle, and finds its way into every myriad aspect of life. By contrast, the Culture has few formal laws and is at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as moral codes go. Citizens of the Culture have genofixed musculatures and organs; they are able to create different performance enhancing and perspective shifting drugs through their own glands rather than taking in a foreign substance. This very idea is anathema to the Azad, as is commented upon by the story’s narrator.
The narrator of The Player of Games breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader at the beginning of the book’s four sections and at the end of the book; otherwise, the main part of the story is told from a third-person perspective. The narrator is a character in the story, and floats this fact in front of the reader for most of the book, but I won’t give away their identity because it is one of the payoffs of finishing the book.
My sales pitch for The Player of Games would be as follows: it’s like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, except better. The reveals at the end of the book are built far better, the protagonist’s surprise at being used is far more believable, and it is overall a more pleasant reading experience that ties things up nicely. Though this is within the same universe as Consider Phlebas, and it is the next book in the Culture series, it isn’t a direct sequel. Though the Idiran war is mentioned, it is an oblique reference and works as a connection rather than a continuation of that specific story. I found myself turning page after page in anticipation with how well the book’s pace flows, and the Azad Empire was built so beautifully that it was engaging to learn about them as Gurgeh did. I am definitely going to pick up the next book in this series (eventually), and would recommend it to those who have read the book that preceded it.
Verdict: 4 mentions of Gurgeh stroking his beard thoughtfully out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of games, fans of well-written sci-fi, those who like strange names, people who enjoy the Culture series, fans of Ender’s Game, and adults.
Not recommended for: The Empire, people uncomfortable with aliens having more than two genders, those who dislike games, fans of Ender’s Game, or children.