Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: The Player of Games by Iain Banks


The Player of Games by Iain Banks is a sci-fi novel about culture, temptation, sexism, and deception, but most of all about the mind of a gamer. A few weak spots don't detract from the otherwise well plotted enjoyment.


The story takes place in Banks' universe, a utopian civilization of several races mixed with AIs both equal to and superior to it's "humans". Everything imaginable is available, and humans can mold their own bodies or secrete internally produced drugs at will or heal themselves with no cost. As a result, there are virtually no laws, leaving all beings to pursue what pleasures or activities they desire so long as they don't disturb others; rare severe abrogations are dealt with via isolation and enforced robotic supervision.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a player of games, possibly the finest ever living in the 11,000 year old Culture. He's looking for something new, and the Contact arm of the Culture's AI interests him in the game of Azad, a complexly structured game played in a non-Culture empire whose members invest so much importance in it that one's standing in the game determines one's profession, all the way up to emperor.

When an additional and rather contrived blackmail plot is added to encourage his leaving, Gurgeh accepts the invitation to play the game, resulting in a full-fledged culture clash between the utopian views of the Culture and the more dystopian medieval Earth-like empire of Azad for the benefit of the reader. Gurgeh exceeds expectations (natch) and gradually discovers that his own involvement in the game is just one more pawn in a larger game between civilizations.


The Player of Games is a fine novel which should appeal to lovers of all genres of fiction. His Culture is a bit hard to believe: AIs superior in intelligence to "humans" but still maintaining a human-centric society; lack of any personal or passion-driven conquest or strife; and so on is all too nice to ring true. But, given this reality, he populates the universe with a fine array of complex characters in a serviceable plot that moves well.

He handles the interactions between human and AI, and human and alien with a deft and smart touch. Like all sci-fi, facets of human nature are revealed in the process.

One scene in particular was near-epic in scope. Having accepted a bet with an empire opponent, the loss of which will result in mere inconvenience for him but devastation for his opponent, Gurgeh is near to resigning the game when an AI takes him on a Dante-like journey through the underworld of the empire. The scene functions as an exaggerated examination of our own world's underbelly, and is quite moving.

While not entirely a surprise, the whole sweeps to a tight and satisfying conclusion.

The weakness of the book is that it is written by an author whose talents are merely forming. The blackmail scene is handled crudely, Gurgeh's inevitable success at each turn is not at all surprising, and scenes which are supposed to elicit emotion merely elicit interest. It's not an exceptional book, but it is a good read. And it gives promise that later works by Iain, should he develop his talents further and not rest lazily on his laurels, may be significant indeed. Since this book is twenty years old and already followed by half a dozen others, this may already be the case.

Of course, my special interest is in the attention paid to games and Gurgeh as a gamer. The thoughts and feelings of Gurgeh will be familiar to any board or card gamer, and these often take center stage. He alludes to a myriad of games without actually describing them, both within the Culture and the empire. The games are too vaguely described to be of any real game design value, but are interesting to fathom, nonetheless.


Well worth picking up, especially if you are a lover of games, The Player of Games is a good start for a talented author, and will be enjoyed by both lovers of sci-fi and lovers of general fiction alike.


rejewvenator said...

Wow - I read that book almost 20 years ago, back when I was in junior high. I remember that after readin the book, and loving the game, I was in a toys r us and saw BattleMasters and bought it immediately. Sadly, BattleMasters is not such a great game, but it really got me into exploring new games. Thanks for this great blast from the past!

Yehuda said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm late to the party, I guess.