About the Book
The Culture - a human/machine symbiotic society - has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game...a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life - and very possibly his death.
The Player of Games is my first introduction to Iain M. Banks. After hearing so much about his Culture novels (and getting a gift card for books on my iPad), this one seemed like a good place to start. The numerous recommendations for it helped me make my decision, as well.
The Player of Games is set in a science fiction universe far into the future where life is lived in a sort of utopia where there is no illness, or any real obligations besides enjoyment. Usually if a book is set in a utopia type universe there has to be a fair amount of dark to balance out the bubbly light tone of things. This book is no different, though Banks chooses a somewhat unique way to balance out the tone of his book.
Once Gurgeh is introduced, it’s obvious that this is a “smart” book. Gurgeh is a genius in his own right and a master game player. While I did have some issues fully caring about all the details of the games Gurgeh plays in this book, Banks thankfully doesn’t spend pages and pages detailing moves and strategy. Instead he pleasantly gives the reader just enough of an overview on the games and gaming culture for them to get a mental picture of what is happening.
The Culture world Gurgeh lives in would have been incredibly boring if it wasn’t for his gaming mastery and his desire for a challenge that his world couldn’t give him. While the first part of the book did drag a touch while Gurgeh was being introduced and the main conflicts were being built upon, it really took off once Gurgeh hit the empire. It’s in the empire that Banks really shows off his knack for intricate world building.
While the tone of The Player of Games is serious, Banks uses subtle humor throughout to poke fun at important parts of his world(s) and uses irony to make a serious book balanced with tone. For example, the ship Gurgeh uses to travel his home to the Empire is called “Little Rascal” even though the ship is huge. These small ironic details fill the book and are easy to overlook.
Though Gurgeh’s world is interesting, that’s not really where Banks’ writing shines, nor is it really where the book is interesting. It’s in the empire where Banks’ understated writing style really pulls the reader in and it really becomes obvious that he is a detailed, intricate author. The book does require brainpower to fully understand and visualize. It quickly becomes important for the reader to focus their attention on some easy-to-overlook details that really help highlight the situation, cultures, peoples and conflict.
Gurgeh is the most real character (he’s also the only main one); but even then Banks seems to keep him at an arm’s distance. It’s not easy to get into Gurgeh’s head. Instead Banks writes him in such a way that he is an observed character rather than a character you understand and relate to. While this would usually bother me, it works in this book. This distance between the protagonist and the reader ensures that many of the plot twists will be exceptionally surprising for the reader. It also allows the reader to sit back and fully analyze what is happening, much like Gurgeh must do when he plays his games.
Though the book doesn’t quite end with all of that. Banks is also toying with some very interesting ideas as he presents life as though it was a game in and of itself. He plays with the idea of cheating, and presents an entire culture where everything from status to jobs to politics is determined based on the playing of one epic game. It's hard not to relate these points to real life.
All in all, this book really surprised me. While the start was fairly slow and the last twist didn’t quite surprise me, everything else was absolutely wonderful. Banks’ writing is understated and incredibly detailed. His flair for world building should be noted as it really makes the book pop. The plot progresses nicely and is very well thought out. My first Culture novel left me impressed and aching to read more.