Published by Orbit
Iain M. Banks’s Culture spans several civilizations and galaxies, and the books over a great many years. The Player of Games, the second novel in Ian M. Banks’s Culture milieu is a bit of a departure from Consider Phlebas. As the title might indicate, it is a more considered novel and a more cerebral novel in that the tension is derived from the stakes of a complex game, rather than action and adventure. Most noticeably, the novel is more intimate in that the focus is primarily on one character Jernau Morat Gurgeh rather than multiple character arcs.
As the title would indicate, Gurgeh is a renowned game player in the Culture and he is offered a chance to compete at what is considered a very complex game that defines a society not part of the Culture itself – the Azad. Azad is the name of the game and the society. The background here is that the Culture doesn’t make its presence known to planets or societies that don’t have sufficiently advanced technology, which happens to be the case with Azad. The Culture wishes to use Gurgeh to get a feel for the civilization of Azad and whether or not Azad is a threat or potential ally. Fluffing out that straightforward plot is the complexity of how Gurgeh was ‘recruited’ by the Culture to infiltrate Azad.
While the reader is put on the sidelines, so to speak, as Gurgeh learns both the culture of Azad and the game of Azad on his journey through space, it isn’t immediately clear just who Gurgeh is serving throughout the novel. Thankfully, Gurgeh is joined on his cross-space journey by a couple drones (the artificial intelligence of Banks’s novels) and also meets with various members of Azadian society as well as the Culture representatives who ‘convince’ (by convince I mean blackmail) Gurgeh to go on the very long expedition.
Although the thriller motif Banks used in the novel made for, at times, a more immediately accessible novel, I found it to be less compelling than Consider Phlebas and not quite as even a novel, on the whole. I found Gurgeh’s plight and the conclusion to be interesting, as well as the concept of an entire civilization and who its ruler is being so intimately tied into a game. What is also clear in The Player of Games is that Banks has a very wide canvas on which he’s telling stories of The Culture.
Recommended for the depth it adds to the Culture milieu though I would perhaps try another novel or two in the saga before jumping to this one. Chronologically, the next in the series is Use of Weapons, considered by many one of the stronger novels in the saga. A novel I will be reading both because of that reputation and for Bank’s world-building (or rather universe-building) and inventive concepts.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford