1988; 391 pages. Book #2 of the “Culture” series. New Author? : No. Genre : Science Fiction. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Azad. It’s the name of an Empire on the other side of the galaxy. Like the Romans, they are ruthless in their conquests, and rule their lands with a heavy hand.
Azad. It’s also the name of the national game of that empire. Think “Warhammer”, but make it 100x larger, 100x longer, and 100x more complex. It is engrained in the national psyche, and the winner of its periodic tournaments becomes Emperor. Azadians study and play it their entire lives.
This year, the Azadian Empire has invited “our” world, called the Culture, to send one player. He’ll get creamed, of course, and even if he were to win, he’s not eligible to become Emperor. Gurgeh is selected, and he’ll have a scant two years to study the game as his spaceship travels across the galaxy. He’s in over his head. But there are games within games.
What’s To Like...The worlds are beautifully rendered, particularly the Fire Planet, where the final act plays out. This is a stand-alone novel, despite being part of a series. The first 120 pages are frankly a bit slow, as Banks maneuvers Gurgeh into being selected. But if you make it past there, the rest of the book hums along marvelously, and there are some neat little twists that lead to a most satisfying ending.
It's fun to find oneself immersed in Azadian society. The “Culture” ethos is equally interesting. The characters aren't exactly compelling, but they're not boring either. The Drones are a great addition.
Hardcore gamers may be disappointed that Iain M. Banks chooses not to explain the details of the games of Azad, but so what? This isn’t a Dungeons-&-Dragons quest; it’s a science fiction novel. We’re following Gurgeh, not the game he happens to be playing.
Kewlest New Word...Snaffle (v.) : to take something quickly for yourself, in a way that prevents someone else from having or using it. (Britishism)
Excerpts...This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player called “Gurgeh”. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game.
Me? I’ll tell you about me later.
This is how the story begins. (pg.1. Is that a great way to open a novel, or what!?)
“But Jernow!” At-sen said, from Gurgeh’s left. “You must have a scar-portrait! So that we may remember you when you have gone back to the Culture and its decadent, many-orificed ladies!” Inclate, on his right, giggled.“Certainly not,” Gurgeh said, mock-serious. “It sounds quite barbaric.”
“Oh yes, yes, it is!” At-sen and Inclate laughed into their glasses. At-sen pulled herself together, put her hand on is wrist. “Wouldn’t you like to think there was some poor person walking around on Ea with your face on their skin?”
“Yes, but on which bit?”
They thought this hilariously funny. (pg. 199)
“You’re coming perilously close to talking about destiny, Jernau Gurgeh.” (pg. 303)Although the central focus is on the game of Azad, The Players of Games is really about what happens when Imperialism and Democracy (for lack of a better term) collide. The author gives them equal treatment, showing the “warts” of both societies and mindsets.
He also puts forth the question : What would happen if our world did happen to meet up a technologically-comparable Empire hell-bent on conquering all who cross their path? Would we view them as barbarians? What would they make of us? If we had to go to war with them, what approach would we use?
I enjoy Iain M. Banks’ writing style, as well as his story-telling. The Player of Games is a good read, and poses some interesting questions about what exactly the term “civilized” means to us, and about us. 8 Stars. Add another star if you’re reading this series in order, cuz I think I'm missing some of the nuances of the characters by not doing so.