The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988) 309 p.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a player of games, a genius master of almost every game that exists. He exists in the utopian, want-for-nothing Culture with a sense of nihlism and ennui, challenged by nothing and bored by everything, until he is plucked from his comfortable life by Contact – an agency of the Culture tasked with dealing with other, potentially hostile, species. Contact has discovered a brutal alien empire in which the higher aspects of society are governed by a complex game called Azad. As the greatest game player in the Culture, Gurgeh is recruited to participate in the empire’s grand game tournament, which determines who becomes the emperor.

This is not because they or the empire believe that Gurgeh could actually become Emperor, Riddick style. Rather, he has been invited as a guest, and the empire does not believe he will progress very far, and Contact’s motives are vague and secretive. Gurgeh is backed up only by a drone and a sentient spaceship; the impression given is that neither this mission, nor the empire, nor Gurgeh, are a particularly high priority for Contact.

This a problem. It reminded me of the largest problem with the first Culture book I read, Look To Windward, which was that it lacked a sense of urgency. A boook does not, of course, have to be about saving the universe to have a sense of urgency. It just has to be urgent for the characters, and even Gurgeh himself never seems to be particularly invested in his circumstances. (Nihilistic characters always irk me.) One of the main themes of Consider Phlebas was about how, during massive wars and world-changing events, individual people really make very little difference to the grand scheme of things – and, although set against the backdrop of a hugely destructive war, Consider Phlebas is mostly about the immediate fate of the protagonist and the people he cares about. Yet I found myself much more invested in the plot of Consider Phlebas than I did in The Player of Games, because the events were drastically important to its main character. (Like Look To Windward, A Player of Games does take a dramatic turn towards the end, but it’s too little, too late.)

The other issue I had with this novel was that so much of it revolved around the game of Azad, yet Banks didn’t bother to actually create this fictional game, and is therefore prevented from ever going into detail about it. This is what a description of a typical round reads like:

The lesser games ended with the sides about even. Gurgeh found there were advantages and disadvantages in playing as part of an ensemble. He did his best to adapt and play accordingly. More talks followed, then they joined battle on the Board of Origin.

Gurgeh enjoyedit. It added a lot to the game to play as a team; he felt genuinely warm towards the apices he played alongside. They came to each other’s aid when they were in trouble, they trusted one another during massed attacks, and they generally played as though their individual forces were a single side. As people, he didn’t find his comrades desperately engaging, but as playing partners he could not deny the sene of emotion he felt for them, and experienced a growing sense of sadness – as the game progressed and they gradually beat back their opponents – that they would soon all be fighting each other.

…Nobody actually attacked until the last of the other team’s pieces had been ccaptured or taken over, but there was some sublte maneuvering when it became clear they were going to win, playing for positions that would become more important when the team agreement ended. Gurgeh missed this until it was almost too late, and when the second part of the game began he was by far the weakest of the five.

Vagueness and generalisations that could apply to any kind of generic competition. Every game in the book is described like this, and we get very little sense of what Azad is actually like. Gurgeh may as well have been playing chess or water polo or Starcraft. Granted, designing a fictional game (especially one that is supposed to be complex enough to represent life itself, as Azad is) is doubtless very difficult. But that’s the fruit that Banks picked when he decide to write a book called The Player of Games, about a game-player playing a game. And sure, such an attempt at designing an interesting game, and then writing exciting passages set within it, could also easily fail. But by deciding to avoid it entirely, Banks gives up without even trying, and that too is a form of failure. It contributed greatly to the sense of aimlessness and lack of urgency that I cited earlier.

There were a number of other things that irritated me. The book suffers mildly from the curse of sci-fi and fantasy writers, which is trying to fit too many ideas into one book. As Gurgeh arrives in the empire’s capital city, his drone points out a labyrinthine prison below their ship:

“The idea is that people who’ve broken the laws are put into the labyrinth, the precise place being determined by the nature of the offence. As well as being a physical maze, it is constructed to be a moral and behavioural labyrinth as well; the prisoner must make correct responses, act in certain approved ways, or he will get no further, and may even be put further back. In theory a perfectly good person can walk free of the labyrinth in a matter of days, while a totally bad person will never get out.”

Gurgeh’s moral character up to that point (and throughout the rest of the book, actually) was fairly grey, so I naturally assumed that he would find himself trapped within the prison later on, and both he and the reader would discover what kind of a man he truly was, while also being treated to an interesting literary set-piece full of riddles, puzzles and encounters. Instead, it never comes up again, the most egregious of several loose threads and pointlessly foreshadowed elements in the book.

I didn’t find The Player of Games to be a particularly bad book, but after hearing constantly about what a wonderful example of the Culture series it was supposed to be, I was very disappointed. I would still rank it more highly than Look To Windward, but lower than Consider Phlebas – which I didn’t exactly love. I’ll still read Use of Weapons, but if that doesn’t grab me, I may stop bothering with the Culture series.

The Player of Games at The Book Depository