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The Player of Games (Culture) Paperback – March 26, 2008
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After a short interval to reflect, I've now read the second book in the series: "The Player Of Games," in which Banks has done a great job of laying out the basic precepts of his universe. I now have a much better understanding and appreciation for the complexity and scale of his vision. Indeed, I can now grasp some of the actions taken by various characters in "Consider Phlebas" and the story makes better sense to me in reflection. While the first book had autonomous "Minds" and petulant "Drones," they all seemed fanciful and somewhat nonsensical. Now I more clearly understand their actions and motives.
As for the actual story, "Player Of Games" is a tightly structured examination of one individual, the ultimate strategist and grand wizard of gaming in the galaxy. This is his story as he is inserted into a barbaric and backward empire whose social structures, religions and politics all center around a complex series of games (or one large game) from which all wealth, privilege and power is derived. Is he there as an ambassador, a subversive spy for The Culture, or just to play the game? Even he doesn't know for sure. The characters are great, the story is complex yet very fast paced and highly entertaining. There are no slow spots - just taught story telling of the highest caliber.
As with all great science fiction, there are plenty of corollaries and allusions to our real world issues, which ultimately makes the book worth reading; more than just a ripping good yarn. If you're like me, a relative newcomer to The Culture books, I cannot imagine there is a better place to start than with "The Player Of Games." I wish I had read it first, as it has given me a greater appreciation for Phlebas. I'm well an truly hooked now, and will plow on through the rest of the series with great anticipation.
The main character, Gurgeh, is egotistical and somewhat abrasive. Gurgeh's got a knack for games, however, and is one of the best in the whole Culture, which has trillions of citizens. Minds, far-beyond-A.I.-level intelligences that run the Culture, have an idea to make him useful. There is a non-Culture world, similar to our own in many ways, that values gaming beyond all else. It also has problems. Since Minds like to poke from the shadows rather than directly take action, Gurgeh becomes important.
I think it's a better story than Consider Phlebas, mostly since it shows what the Culture is like. There's interesting characters, my favorite is Gurgeh's companion. Player of Games is many people's favorite novel of the series, not mine however it is definitely near the top. After finishing this story, I wanted more Culture. Luckily there's several more books.
Next up is Use of Weapons, the third Culture novel.
Jernau Gurgeh is a famed game player. He has mastered pretty much every popular game, no mean trick for someone who does not specialize in any particular game. He has devoted his life to game scholarship which, in Banks’ utopian future, is as good a way of using up your life as any other.
The Contact section of Culture has been interacting with a galactic empire that acquires power over other planets by the ruthless use of force. Leadership in the empire is determined through a series of games. The ultimate winner becomes the Emperor, while a good showing assures political or military appointments. None of that would bother the Culture except for the empire’s cruelty toward pretty much everyone who isn’t in power, including residents of the planets it conquers.
The Culture manipulates Gurgeh into playing the empire’s game after manipulating the empire into inviting Gurgeh to play. Having accepted the challenge, Gurgeh experiences a series of emotional highs and lows as he confronts his feelings about the game, the empire, the Culture, and his life as a game player.
The novel has some funny moments, mostly involving Gurgeh’s interaction with the prissy machine that the Culture has assigned to assist him, but the novel isn’t humor-based, as are some of Banks’ later Culture novels. Banks includes a nice mix of action scenes, but The Player of Games isn’t really an action novel. It’s more of a psychological thriller in a science fiction setting. Playing the games takes a toll on Gurgeh, as do his discoveries about the nature of the empire and the consequences of the game he has chosen to play. His turmoil and the evolution of his character is the novel’s strongest feature.
The Player of Games has something to say about the nature of empires and of any political or social system that relies on subjugation or that denies freedom. None of its insights on those subjects are fresh or surprising but that doesn’t lessen their importance. A stronger and subtler theme, I think, is that games are not a model for governance. Banks makes the reader understand that competition, while fun in a harmless game in which honorable players do not cheat, leads to war and corruption when it becomes the basis for acquiring political power.
The Player of Games is fun, smart, exciting, and meaningful. I think it’s one of Banks’ best science fiction novels, and one of his best novels overall.
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