Tag Archives: sci-fi

Sci-fi Book Reviews: The Player of Games

24 Sep

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.

Sci-fi Book Reviews: Old Man’s War

22 Sep

So, blatantly stealing from Library Scenester, I thought I’d write reviews of a couple of books I’ve recently read: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. I confess I wasn’t really into “hard” sci-fi in my youth, preferring fantasy and the kind of sci-fi in which people fought with swords or knives. And, to be honest, I’m not sure where these books rank on the odd consistency scale that speculative fiction fans seem to construct about genre works… but they’re not space opera, that’s for sure.

So, let’s begin…

 Old Man’s War starts out better than any book I’ve read in a while:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

The book is the story of John Perry, who leaves the Earth he’s known for 75 years to join the Colonial Defense Forces. An embargo on travel and information between Earth and its purported colonies leaves just about everyone in the planet completely in the dark about what’s happening in the rest of the galaxy, but John and his fellow senior recruits know two things: the Colonials have technology that’s demonstrably beyond the wildest dreams of native Earthers, and enlistment promises some sort of rejuvenation program above and beyond anything found at home.

And all you have to do promise to serve for two to ten years, and never return to Earth. Which of course John does, otherwise the book would be short and far less noteworthy.

The universe put forth in the novel is both refreshingly humanistic and remarkably optimistic. While the genre trope of fighting for your species’ survival is alive and well between these covers, the advantages humanity brings to the table are presented effectively. And while there are numerous occasions when the CDF could sell the species’ soul for its survival — and arguably a few when they do — the picture of future humanity tends to be a society that tries to do right by its own, even as it fights to exist.

Refreshing, that.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. Cory Doctorow called it, Starship Troopers without the lectures… Forever War with better sex.” Having read both those works recently, I’d have to agree. But Old Man’s War also stakes out its own territory in the realm of works that chronicle humanity finding its’ place in an often-hostile universe.

Come back later this week for another review! (Or, y’know, read it in your RSS reader.)