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The Player of Games (1988)

by Iain M. Banks

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Culture (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
5,6041601,403 (4.14)1 / 306
In the human-machine symbiotic society called The Culture, there have been many great game players. One, Gurgeh, is a master of every board, computer, and strategy. He travels to the Empire of Azad to try its game, one so complex and like life itself, that the winner becomes emperer. With this game, he takes on the challenge of his life, and possibly his death.… (more)
  1. 30
    Second Game by Charles V. de Vet (DisassemblyOfReason)
    DisassemblyOfReason: Another alien civilization wherein one's status as a game player has a direct relationship to one's status in society, and to which a human game player has been deliberately sent to play the game.
  2. 10
    Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (kaydern)
    kaydern: High sci-fi with excellently complex worldbuilding.
  3. 00
    The Gameshouse by Claire North (Cecrow)
  4. 00
    The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (themulhern)
    themulhern: Two opposing cultures collide in both works. Urras = The Empire but their opposites (Annares and The Culture) have very little in common. Annares is determined by scarcity, the Culture by its lack.
  5. 13
    Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (jeroenvandorp)

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» See also 306 mentions

English (151)  French (5)  Italian (2)  Finnish (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (160)
Showing 1-5 of 151 (next | show all)
Late to the party, but this was excellent. (This is what I mean about Banks being all over the map, for me--Consider Phlebas I rated 2 stars, this one a comfortable 5).

One of the best things about this novel, from a writerly standpoint, is that it so easily could be dull. Most of the novel is in "tell" rather than show. The MC is described with a huge amount of emotional distance (because the story isn't written by him), even though the story supposedly hinges on his highs and lows as hey plays. The main character, Gurgeh, is a straight up Mary Sue most of the time. And the central feature of the book, the game of Azad itself, is far too complex for the reader to actually learn all the rules, so the narrative spends all its time talking *around* the game.

And.... it... works. Really, really works. This novel is a case study (as Banks' novels so often are) of how to bend the rules in all the right ways.

To address the points above, having to talk around the game is what causes most of the book to be narrated in a tell-style, and removes much of the emotional filter. But part of why this works is because the book ISN'T focused on the highs and lows of wins and losses, as you might expect for a game about gambling. For one thing, that tension almost isn't there--because, as above, Gurgeh is just too good. You expect him to win. The tension comes from the mystery of the game itself. How high, how deep, how far does it go? To what extent does it define, permeate, sustain, and be influenced by, Azad society? Or indeed, all societies? What does the approach of each player say about them, say about their culture and mindset? These are riveting aspects, the sources of tension of fascination throughout.

A lot of skill went into the construction for this novel. As ever, Banks aimed high--and this time, he hit. ( )
2 vote Sunyidean | Sep 7, 2021 |
I’ve read hundreds of science fiction novels over the years, but had never read any authored by Iain Banks. His recent, untimely passing led me to his Culture series and this was the first that I took on. While it is technically not the first in the series (an honor held by Consider Phlebas), I read several reviews which counseled that the Consider Phlebas was not his best work and that starting with the second was the better option. I certainly didn’t feel that I was in any way dropped into the middle of the story.

The Culture is a civilization set far in the future. It is utopian, with everlasting life and no scarcity of resources. In addition to humanoids, the Culture is populated by sentient artificial intelligence, both in the form of bots and ships. Any needs and even desires are met instantly. Interstellar travel is the norm, though there is no explanation for how this occurs or why there is no time dilation, as communication occurs easily, over many light years.

As you can expect, in a state requiring no work, and instant access to anything you want or need, boredom quickly sets in. In this case, personal gratification is acquired through the playing and mastery of games. The protagonist in this story, Gurgeh, is the acknowledged preeminent game player in the Culture.

The Culture has identified an alien civilization (the Azad), a repressive, authoritarian state, inferior to the culture in technology and supposedly, social awareness. The linchpin of the entire society rests upon mastery of a hideously complicated game, through which not only the Emperor, but the ruling strata of the society are selected. The Culture has selected Gurgeh to learn the game and compete against the Azad. What follows is an outstanding story.

Despite being somewhat weak on “hard” science fiction, I found this to be an excellent work. A previous reviewer likened it to some of the science fiction work of Ursula LeGuin, what I would refer to as anthropological science fiction, focusing more on the sociological interaction between different species, as opposed to simply technology. I would agree completely. This story brings to mind her Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Highly recommended as an introduction to The Culture. ( )
  santhony | Sep 3, 2021 |
A friend put me onto Ian M. Banks and this is the first of his books I've read. I'm into science fiction on the screen, but not so much in print. So I wasn't sure this book was going to work for me and for the first 1/4 of the book my jury was still out. But something 'unknown' pulled me on, and I realise - now that I've finished the book - it was the cleverness of the author.

Banks' command of the English language and his ability to describe imaginary worlds, societies, technologies, games, and beings which do not yet exist, is really quite something. His writing is elegant, yet forceful. Comprehensive, yet also restrained. The book is a treat, even just to enjoy his writing skills.

But the plot and themes were not diminished. I had a feeling, even from the early pages, that this was a game within a game. The actual game play, the plot, the characters, and the two societies are distinct in themselves, yes, but they are also mirrors. It is clear - as the story builds - that a more advanced society is analysing and observing a lesser more barbaric one, and eventually intervening within it. It felt, to me, like the distant future of humanity (maybe thousands of years from now) was looking back at an earlier form of itself (say, hundreds of years from now) with some scorn and trepidation. Perhaps, if the nearer more barbaric society does not get things right - if it does not evolve banal beyond concepts like ownership, money, greed, hedonism, and dominance - then the future advanced society will never come to be. The earlier version will simply destroy itself first.

Is it possible to develop a society which thrives of cooperation rather than dominance, or do the laws of evolution mean we must always compete to allow the strongest to emerge? Can we hold on to the greater good, or is the desire to win and hoard too tempting for us humans? This is the message of the book, I think. This is the mirror it holds up to us. Don't believe me? Read it, and see what you think.

It was entertaining to read of sentient AI and machines, advanced drones, advanced networks, hyperspace travel, morphism of genders, a rise of a more powerful third apex gender .. and much more. Even more amazing when you consider this was written in 1998! Banks has certainly got some predictions right, if recent history is an early indicator of what's in store.

It's very clever how Banks took the lead character along a journey where he was totally played. The game player was gamed. But it's even more incredible that, as the reader, we get played too - but in a delicious, very satisfying way. A true game within a game, within a game. ( )
1 vote Nic.DAlessandro | Aug 3, 2021 |
I've read a number of Culture novels before, but not in any particular order. I therefore found it strange to read this early one now, because here Banks apparently still felt a need to explain much about the Culture to the reader; some of that feels clumsy, especially at the beginning of the book, with characters saying things to another like "Well, of course you remember that ". In addition, the book was hard for me to get into, with an initially unlikeable main character, very little seeming to happen, and then, at the start of the second section (of three), the jarring appearance of a chatty narrator addressing the reader but being coy about their identity.

But that's OK, because this is when the book starts to get good. And it gets very good indeed. Now the main character, Jernau Gurgeh, is off to the foreign, and quite alien to him, Azad empire, and while we see it through his eyes, it's recognizably similar to our own culture. And it's easy to see how inferior it looks to Gurgeh, and why, so there's some interesting social commentary here.

That's not the plot, though, which revolves around Gurgeh going (well, being sent) to Azad to play their great, and furiously complex, game, also called Azad, in a once-every-twelve-years tournament that determines every player's subsequent role in the empire, including who will be the next emperor. And this is wonderful stuff! Banks gives that bizarre premise a plausible justification, and we watch how Gurgeh's approach to the game, its other players, their whole society, and everything and everyone else he knows, all changes the deeper into play he gets. He knows he can't win the tournament, because he's only studied the game for the two years it took him to reach it, while most players have studied it their entire lives, but his struggles to put up a good fight are quite thrilling.

Another wonderful thing here is that Banks doesn't even try to explain the game to the reader in anything other than broad strokes, hinting at the varying nature of the game's phases, and describing rules or scoring methods only to introduce their outcomes when significant. As a result, it felt like watching some sporting event where I didn't know the rules, but while sitting next to an intelligent fan who know how to explain just enough for me to enjoy the game and get excited by it.

In the end this was a very entertaining read. I read [b:Matter|886066|Matter (Culture, #8)|Iain M. Banks|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1327954631s/886066.jpg|871329] last year, and I think I enjoyed this just a little bit less, but only because of the problems I had with the beginning. I'm very glad I read it. ( )
1 vote JohnNienart | Jul 11, 2021 |
Admired, but did not love.

All of Iain. M. Banks' signature moves are here, in all their glory, in only his second outing into his twisted/admirable/utopian/dystopian post-scarcity and pure libertarian society, the Culture. So there's the dark humour, the snarky AIs, the rich world-building, the dizzying amorality of a society in which, almost literally, anything goes, and an unsparing understanding of the hidden costs of such "freedom."

But ... for me, this read wasn't pure pleasure, and I kept being dragged away from my immersion in the affairs of the Culture, and particularly in the trials and tribulations of the Player of Games, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, as I found myself constantly questioning the bigger picture, and asking, what is it for? Oh, yes, of course: to demonstrate that a "virtuous" post-scarcity, pure libertarian, utopian/dystopian, anything-goes society can be just as bad, just as devious and exploitative as an old-school fascist empire. Just as, in its own way, ... imperialistic, crushing the lives and choices of enemies and friends under its wheels.

But ... the real problem for me, from page 1, is Jernau Morat Gurgeh. A "poor little rich boy" (although, in the Culture, there's nothing to stop him being a "poor little rich girl" for while, if he fancies), at the beginning of the novel he is bored with his perfect life ... and completely and unutterably boring. That's fine, that's ok (if a little dragged out: do we really need to see the full "horror" of his ennui at his beautiful home, and loving friends, and lively social life, and professional success, at such length? We get it, he's bored with it all ...) It's a perfectly fine narrative strategy to present us with our protagonist when he/she is at rock bottom, and see where he/she goes from there.

But the problem is that Jernau Morat Gurgeh goes nowhere: he is bored by his life in the Culture, he is pretty bored and uninspired by the adventure that the Culture sends him on, to the Empire of Azad. He is mildly piqued by the game of Azad, the wildly complicated, "life as a game" metaphor that powers and organizes the Empire. Nothing real, outside the Game seems to move him, nothing seems to shake him out of his narrow-minded focus on playing the game, and the artificial consequences of the game for him.

And it doesn't help that he's pretty stupid, on the macro-level, with all his supposed skill and single-mindedness at his beloved game playing. Trying for no spoilers here, but let's just say who plays the player? But some of the "big reveals" were pretty obvious, and it seemed to me that the only one who didn't understand what the Culture was really up to was Jernau Morat Gurgeh, and the entire population of Azad.

Right, I've gotten that out of my system. The fact is, however, that I "enjoyed" being made a little cross by this, and I'm very glad I read it. It's another interesting insight in the workings of the Culture, and it just adds to my respect for Banks, for inventing a society that is theoretically admirable in so many ways, but not pure good. I adore his AI Minds, and I want to have one as a friend, please. I seem to recall that Banks revisited the themes here -- the slightly self-obsessed, blinkered citizen of the Culture who finds himself exploited and endangered by the society that he assumes is looking out for him -- in a later novel in the Culture series, The Algebraist, and worked some of the bugs out. I'll have to go back and reread that, to see if I'm right! ( )
  maura853 | Jul 11, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Banks, Iain M.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benini, MilenaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kenny, PeterNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Keynäs, VilleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salwowski, MarkCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For James S Brown, who once said 'Azshashoshz.'
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This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game.
Does Gurgeh really understand what he's done, and what might happen to him? Has it even begun to occur to him that he might have been tricked? And does he really know what he's let himself in for?

Of Course not!

That's part of the fun!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

In the human-machine symbiotic society called The Culture, there have been many great game players. One, Gurgeh, is a master of every board, computer, and strategy. He travels to the Empire of Azad to try its game, one so complex and like life itself, that the winner becomes emperer. With this game, he takes on the challenge of his life, and possibly his death.

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Azad Empire

A game that is not a game

Careful how you play


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