The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks – Review

The Player of Games

The Player of Games is the second book in the Culture series, a space opera series that deals with utopian concepts and philosophies. And of course, this Player of Games is about, well, games.

A certain Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a master player, got tricked into participating in a tournament held by a less advanced space empire. The stake of the game doesn’t seem high at first, but everything will rush towards a destructive conclusion. The purpose of the Empire here is to be in contrast with the Culture. One is a civilization based on competition, aggression and personal property (sort of like our current lifestyle). The other is a socialist utopia with no scarcity and no rules or governments per se.

Plot and characters

To be honest, the plot and the characters are acceptable but they impress little. On the other hand, reading about a utopian society where things cannot go wrong was more fun than I expected. The book compares the Culture and the Azad Empire, the latter being easier to understand for our limited human minds that live in a constant struggle with nature and other people. A post-scarcity world is hard to envision. A post-scarcity world where there are still interesting things to do is even harder to imagine.

The Player of Games is divided into roughly 3 parts, corresponding with the 3 worlds our Gurgeh meets. First, there is one Orbital belonging to the Culture, the familiar scene where Gurgeh spends his life and hones his skills. Then there is the cultural shock, the welcoming party, and the learning of the Azad game. And finally, there is an understanding of the Empire and how the game truly works, with its many implications.

There is a certain tone for each part. A boring peaceful atmosphere in the Culture, a certain intrigue and mystery and why not, danger in the Empire, and a revelation in the ultimate game. So if you feel like the first part is a little slow, that is intentional. There is no real danger in the Culture, and possibly that’s why it’s so hard to write about a Utopian society. No gripping tension, no mystery, no secrets, no manipulations, no rule-breaking. There is simply peace. And readers hate peace. I certainly do. I mean, I dream of a utopian society, but I admit the books I read tend to fall into the action-filled scenery.

World building

And that’s why the better parts of The Player of Games are the philosophy and world-building. A world where cosmic peace exists and people live to their maximum potential, without notions such as glory, honor, and personal conquest, which sounds like virtues in our vocabulary, but are the total opposites of that, because of course, to experience those concepts, one needs to fight an enemy. And if there’s not an enemy, one needs to create it in order to show his or her virtues.

The genders and biological sexes presented in this novel represent another fantastic piece of world-building, though I feel there could be more potential to explore the implications of more than one sex in a conscious and intelligent species.

The Player of Games is a classic science fiction where ideas prevail over characters, plot and action. There is enough on the side to keep you interested. In the end, I’d say it’s a book well balanced between philosophy, plot, and characters. If you’ve read any modern science fiction fantasy books, don’t expect the same explosive action. Instead, The Player of Games is written in that slightly outdated style where points of view are constantly changing from scene to scene. It can be a bit offputting, but if you’re open to a novel that questions the science fiction tropes while inventing new ones (probably already used in more recent books), this book is for you.

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