The Player Of Games By Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games was the 2nd novel of Scottish writer Iain M. Banks in the science-fiction genre.

It was published in 1988 and continued his exploration of The Culture, an odd multi-species biological and machine meta civilization, in an albeit peripheral fashion.

This is the 4th novel from Banks that I have read over a short period of time. Over the last week, I have also read Excession, Consider Phlebas and The Algebraist. This time, the novel explores some of the themes that Banks touched upon in Consider Phlebas, the playing of games.

This is a review of the science-fiction novel The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks. It does not contain any spoilers.

I really liked this novel, like his previous ones that I have read, they are page-turners. I started this novel on Friday night and finished it in the same sitting. That means a lot. Banks explores a facet of The Culture that he brought to the light in Consider Phlebas. This novel is a bit shorter than the previous ones I have read from the same author, totalling about 300 pages.

The novel mainly deals with the problems that are present in The Culture and how an abuse of power might be possible. Unlike Excession, the main character in this novel is a human. In Excession, Banks concentrated on the Von Neumann ships operated by AIs that The Culture uses.

Gurgeh gives an adequate portrayal of what life would be like when you are bored. The humans that populate the culture have to find ways to enjoy themselves, and the playing of games is just a symptom of this. Humanity needs purpose. Like some of the other characters Banks has used in the past, Gurgeh is fallible and human, although he is full of drugs and has been genofixed (scripted, genetically engineered) since birth.

This is an example of how the Culture can deal with threats without reverting to overt force. By using Special Circumstances to its full potential, destructive wars like the Idiran-Culture war can be prevented.

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In a society where money is irrelevant and humans are free to do whatever they want, some play games.

Games of any fashion, just like the poker games that are so popular these days, and their players focus the attention of everyone.

In Consider Phlebas, Banks explored this theme partly by introducing to the readers the Players at the End of the World. Those players played the game Damage, which used projected emotions and the lives of willingly drugged participants (who would be killed if the player looses a hand). Their best games take place at locales that will be shortly destroyed. As The Culture will shortly destroy the Vavatch Orbital to stop it from falling into Idiran hands, this is a perfect opportunity for a game of Damage.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh lives on Chiark Orbital, a megastructure, and is bored with his successful life. After trying to beat an up and rising player at Stricken, a board game, and being tempted by a renegade drone to cheat, he is blackmailed by the same drone into trying to make it be accepted into Special Circumstances (abbreviated as SC from now on) again, the military intelligence division of Contact.

The drone Mawhrin-Skel is a sociopath and had its advanced features removed by force when things got out of hand when it worked in SC. As a civilian, it remains cruel and rude and developed a plot to bring itself back into a life of adventure, thanks to Gurgeh. Gurgeh is entrapped by this same drone to find a way back into SC for it. Seeing that his reputation as a game player and his theories on game theory will most likely lie in shambles, Gurgeh tries to secure what the drone wants, not before he contacts the Hub Mind that runs the Orbital so sweep his home for bugs.

A few days later, after making inquiries into SC, a drone is sent to ask questions of Gurgeh. Gurgeh initially throws them off, but in retrospect, thinks that going on a mission far away might be good for him, even if Mawhrin-Skel releases the information that he is being blackmailed with, it wouldn’t matter much since he would be light years away.

Gurgeh does his best to contact SC once more and accepts the mission after the drone describes the game of Azad. The game is used by the Empire of Azad to determine who will be emperor and the status as well as the rank of all governmental positions, from ministers to navy officers. The Culture suspects that the game is so complex that it mimics life. The society of the Empire of Azad is divided into three sexes, one male, one female and one apex (who are the dominant sex in that society and who depose the fertilized egg into the females.)

Gurgeh spends the two years in transit on the ship Limiting Factor, which is an old Murderer class (R) GOU (Retired General Offensive Unit), which immediately heads off to the GSV Little Rascal (General Systems Vehicle) on its way to the other side of the galaxy. On his way there, he familiarizes himself with the game of Azad, a very complex game.

He is joined by the library drone Flere-Imsaho, who instructs him in matters of protocol and diplomacy. Upon his arrival at Ëa, the central planet of the Empire, he discovers that the citizens have a flair to life, that is absent in The Culture. He was pegged as an upstart and it was thought that he wouldn’t survive any rounds of Azad, but Gurgeh suprises them all, by being a fierce and fluid opponent and winning his way further and further into Azad. At one point though, it becomes too much for the Empire, and they orchestrate his defeat on the Fire planet.

Towards the end of the novel, schemes are revealed and the fate of the Empire is up in the air, as Gurgeh speeds away in the (R)GOU Limiting Factor. Just like Excession, this book continues the exploration of the abuse of power within the Culture.

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