You could say I’m a fan of games. I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember; one of my earliest memories growing up is going to buy an NES with my parents at a toy store down in the States. We had to climb a fence to get in the store, as we were on the complete wrong side of the building and didn’t have a car, and it was pretty intense for a three-year old. When I worked at a comic book store, I got heavily into tabletop role playing games, chiefly Dungeons and Dragons, but also some lesser-known games like Unknown Armies, and Paranoia. I own a fair amount of board games now, mostly Fantasy Flight products, but the sad thing is I can’t point my finger at one and say that I’m very good at it. If I had to choose, I’m probably better than average at Twilight Struggle and Ticket to Ride, but apart from that I’m kind of an easy mark. I’ve never stayed awake through a whole eight-hour game of Twilight Imperium, and the endless dicking around that accompanies the supposedly fast-paced The Resistance bores me to tears every time.
The second book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle (following Consider Phlebas, reviewed previously here), The Player of Games, is about someone who’s my polar opposite in this regard. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master gamer: indeed, the “Morat” in his name even means as much in the Culture’s language, Marain. As noted in my last review, the Culture is a far-future human society which has melded almost entirely with machines. Great AIs known as Minds run the show for the most part, and humans spend their time in search of hedonistic pleasure, swapping genders almost at will and drugging themselves with whatever genofixed concoction suits their fancy. Gurgeh lives on a Culture “orbital” named Chiark, a gigantic structure that resembles Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the place all the rich people lived in last year’s film Elysium, and there he’s the champ at basically every game imaginable, even teaching game theory to students. In the post-scarcity world of the Culture, you can focus your entire existence on these sorts of pursuits without worry, and while he seems happy on the surface, Gurgeh is looking for something that will prove a challenge.
That challenge comes in the form of the Empire of Azad, a rival civilization whose existence the Culture has kept under wraps to the general public. The Empire’s entire society is controlled by use of a game, also called Azad, played every few years. Your status in the Empire is determined by how well you did at the last tournament, and whoever wins the whole thing becomes the Emperor. The rapacious, competitive nature of the Empire is cultivated by its higher ups all being skilled game-players, and this unorthodox system is exactly what compels Gurgeh into action, as it’s so different from the anarchy and seeming carelessness of the much more decentralized Culture.
This was a ripping good read as, unlike Consider Phlebas, this time out we are subsumed right into the strange and exciting world of the Culture, and are able to live vicariously through its people. Gurgeh is a relative innocent in many respects, at least compared to the people of Azad, who are continually scheming and plotting against one another. In fact, one of the reasons Gurgeh leaves Chiark to go participate in the game is because he’s blackmailed into it, and this is such a rarity in the Culture that the very concept must be explained to him!
The world of Azad will be familiar to us, as its barbarity is not too far removed from our own miserable existence, at least as compared to the Culture. While it is initially an exciting place for our sheltered hero, as the veils come off and he gets more involved in the game he soon experiences the abject misery and inequality most of its people toil under. In an especially intense sequence, Gurgeh’s handler during the game, a sentient drone named Flere-Imsaho, shows him the varying levels of depravity the upper classes enjoy watching on television as they move up the ranks. It’s basically the endgame portrayed in the movie Videodrome, violent entertainment breeding more violence except even more explicit somehow. The stakes are pretty high for our main character.
There’s an interesting use of voice in certain sections of the novel, as the heretofore unseen narrator butts in and starts explaining concepts to the reader that will make for dramatic irony later on. This includes fun stuff like how the three-sexed Azadians carry children to term, and how they’re to be addressed when speaking about them (short version, male, female, and the bisexual “apex”, plural “apices”). It jarred me out of the story at first, as it’s different from the strict third-person narration found in Consider Phlebas and the only other Culture novel I’ve read so far, Surface Detail. I wonder if this writing technique brings Iain M. Banks closer to the style he uses in his non-sci fi persona, Iain Banks. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m game to find out once I lay hands on some non-“M.” books.
Like Consider Phlebas, I found Player of Games to be an intensely cinematic reading experience, and even though Banks doesn’t find himself able to completely explain the Azad game (with good reason, I think), I was still imagining how it’d look “onscreen” throughout. The story is a bit more cerebral than the swashbuckling adventures found in Consider Phlebas, but Gurgeh’s metamorphosis into a more Azadian, more brutal person mimics Horza’s gradual reconciliation with the Culture’s worldview. Where I found the previous novel to be a new spin on the pulp tropes of the Astonishing Tales era of science fiction, Player of Games is more of a novel of ideas in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, although with much more interesting use of language, character and etc. than those staid tomes. Highly recommended, even if you’ve never read a Culture novel before.