The Player of Games isn’t the first of the Iain M. Bank’s Culture books that I’ve started — that honor goes to Consider Phlebas — but it is the first one that I’ve finished. It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve been willing to give up on books; before that, I’d struggle through to the end no matter how boring the prose or how unlikeable the characters. Consider Phlebas didn’t suffer from either of those problems, really: it just didn’t grab me, and when you’ve got as many books out of the Cornell Library, public library, and interlibrary loan as I do, you’ve got to be willing to cur your losses.
However, I was still interested in the idea of the Culture: a massive civilization of post-scarcity humans who live pretty-damn-near utopian lives with the assistance and guidance of godlike AI Minds who are, oddly enough, honestly benevolent. Of course, you may be saying, “Well, that sounds neat, but where’s the conflict?” Well, that’s where Contact (the folks in the Culture who deal with its interactions with other species) and its subsection Special Circumstances comes in. Y’see, life’s pretty good in the Culture, but the Culture’s not the only game in town.
The Player of Games tells the story of Gurgeh, a well-respected member of the Culture who spends his time learning, playing, and writing articles about games. This has made him something of a celebrity, not because he can afford to live like this — in the Culture, pretty much everyone* gets to live like a tenured professor on sabbatical** — but because he’s really, really good at it. Unfortunately, this means that Contact taps him to visit the Empire of Azad, a civilization based almost entirely around the play of the game which shares its name. Gurgeh finds the game of Azad to be exceedingly complex, peerlessly nuanced, and insidiously seductive… traits shared, perhaps not unsurprisingly, by the Empire itself.
I’m not sure why The Player of Games grabbed me so thoroughly when Consider Phlebas failed to. Maybe it’s because I’m primarily interested in the Culture itself, and the former is firmly rooted within the Culture while the latter is written from the point of view of its enemies. Maybe I just thought Gurgeh was a more interesting main character. Maybe it was something I ate.
But whatever the reason, Gurgeh’s unpleasant uprooting from his well-established life within the Culture and his integration into the game and civilization of Azad wasa story I was glad to keep returning to. I was especially impressed with the scenes involving gameplay: Banks has his characters play a number of games that don’t, y’know, actually exist, and he manages to convey the play in a suspenseful, thorough way despite never delving into the specific details or minutiae of rules. This is especially true of the descriptions of Azad: I felt I had a clear idea of what was going on in every step of the game, though I couldn’t explain the rules to save my life. Sci-fi writers often stumble trying to explain things beyond human experience, either by providing an overwhelming level of detail or by leaving the picture to sparse to be comprehended. Banks does neither, and the book soars because of it.
I’ll definitely be returning to the Culture books. I think Use of Weapons is next on my list, but if they keep being this enjoyable, I’ll even give Consider Phlebas another go. Heck, it took me two tries to get all the way through all four volumes of Book of the New Sun, and that ended up being very much worth it.
* Even the sentient robots, who are considered full citizens of the Culture.
** A tenured professor who can change genders with relative ease, and has a special drug-secreting gland in their brain***.
*** Well, I guess the sentient robots don’t do the gender-switching brain-drug thing, but they still get to write papers.