The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1988)

Grade: Α — Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book.

In brief: The Player of Games is Iain M Banks second science fiction novel, and the second installment in his Culture series. It beautifully builds upon the Universe he constructed in Consider Phlebas, but unlike most series, you don’t have to have read the previous novel to understand and thoroughly enjoy this book. Instead, this book fleshes out the concepts of the Culture introduced in his first novel while also building a wonderfully complex society and a fascinating plot.  I highly recommend this book, not for the action or the cool sci-fi stuff, but for the flow of language, the incredible ideas and the interesting commentary on socio-cultural imperialism.  Having said that, there’s some pretty cool sci-fi stuff and action as well.

Setting: The Culture is a hyper advanced, galaxy spanning utopian civilization whose citizens lead an arguably hedonistic life free of concerns.  Governed by a series of hyper-intelligent artificial Minds (they are to Artificial Intelligences as humans are to single cell organisms), the citizens of the Culture live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will, can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire… can do whatever they please.  This book solidly builds upon the concept of this society introduced in Banks’ previous novel. 

In Depth:

Make no mistake; this is a book about games.  It says so on the cover.  

At the center of the book is a game like no other. It is a beautiful multi-faceted game that is played across a variety of levels, from boards to computers to cards to a huge range of other forms and formats.  Yet, while Banks describes the action in the game in great detail, he never actually gets bogged down in describing the rules.  We get the concept of the game, we see much of what happens in the game, and we get to know the strategies of the game, but we don’t actually know how it is played.  We don’t need to, and that is brilliant. We are shown what we need to know, but not drawn into descriptions that are irrelevant to the plot or setting. 

That is not all there is to the book, however; nor what makes it great. The Player of Games is primarily a story about how societies work, and how civilizations can come to dominate one another without ever going to war (he’s allowed, this is fiction after all).  To that end, it touches upon the very concept of culture, identity and the process of imperialization.  

I loved this book.  It took the superb ideas about the Culture introduced in Consider Phlebas and built a whole society upon them.  What is more, it did so by constructing a totally different second society, the Azad, and contrasting the two through the action in the book.  That, along with Banks’ ever fluid writing style would have gotten this book a Beta rating, but when you add his fascinating insights into societal assimilation, it truly raised this novel to an Alpha. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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6 Responses to The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1988)

  1. blake says:

    It is interesting that in subsequent books, the Culture as a society never gets threatened by a society with a chance to inflict harm on it as in Consider Phlebas. Player of Games is a great read – a better introduction to the inner workings of the Culture.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I think it is because Banks wants the Culture to be a Peace loving society, and so he has them generally avoid war where possible. Of course, in “Look to Windward” there is a threat of war on an equal level and in “Excession” they face a threat that is even greater than the Culture, but in general you are totally correct.

      • blake says:

        That’s what makes the Culture an interesting setting: avowedly peace loving but also willing to fight to defend and protect that peace when threatened. This brings up interesting ethical and moral dilemmas in the process: does “peace loving” preclude maintaining a store of warships?

  2. Thomas Evans says:

    I think peace loving should not be confused with Pacifist. The two are very different. Indeed, have you ever read Banks’ comments about why his Peace loving culture always seems on the verge of war? Summed up: Because that’s the kind of story he writes. He writes about the interesting bits.

  3. Pingback: Player of Games | EJRH

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