The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is the first of his science fiction novels that I read. At the end of last year I read two of his more recent ones that I was blown away by and wished I could nominate them for my book club. I couldn’t because we have a page length limit of about 600 pages and these two books were both well over that. So, I thought I would nominate The Player of Games which I first read more than ten years ago. I wondered if I would like as much now as I did then.
The Culture is a socialist utopia run by artificial intelligences where people can pursue any life they like. (I totally want to live in the Culture). There are a group of people and AIs who form Contact which is like the Culture’s diplomatic service and armed forces rolled into one. Within Contact is a more shadowy organisation called Special Circumstances. These are the groups that manage the Culture’s relationships with other civilizations. Gurgeh is a man who has spent his life mastering all the games there are to play and is acknowledged as one of the foremost gamers in the whole Culture.
Gurgeh is manipulated into travelling to Azad, a more barbaric civilization to play the game that rules their society. How competitors place in the game determines the positions they will hold in public life. Azad is a hierarchical society riven with inequity and they don’t believe anyone from outside Azad will stand a chance in the game. Naturally, Gurgeh does better than anyone expects and the stakes become very high.
One thing I do notice about Banks’ books is that they start slow and end with a bang. I enjoyed this greatly, but perhaps not as much as I did the first time around. The reason for that is that Banks’ later books are much better :-). There’s a nice amount of ambiguity about who is playing who and several games are being played at once. It’s a gentle introduction to the world of the Culture and the themes that Banks’ likes to explore with it. There’s only a low level of machines with personality disorders which is disappointing but despite that, I would highly recommend it.