The Player of Games is the second of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a famous game player from the protective, machine-run Culture. Like everyone else that lives in the Culture, Gurgeh has never known fear, pain, or greed. He wants little beyond the thrill offered by the games and the respect he earns from winning them until he meets Mawhrin-Skel, a drone that blackmails Gurgeh into traveling to the distant Empire of Azad and representing the Culture in a tournament.
The Empire of Azad is founded upon the principles and consequences of its game, Azad. Title and status are dependent upon one’s performance in the game, as is political influence. Advanced players are required to register their political and ethical stances, which are reported to the rest of the civilization. Though Azad provides a stable structure that has guided the Empire through the ages, the rules and laws that are derived from it have allowed for genocide and subjugation.
Although Azad has its own distinct history, The Player of Games is primarily focused on Jernau Gurgeh’s participation in the tournament. Few details are provided about the nuances of Azad’s civilization. Both Gurgeh and the reader approach Azad much as an ambassador would approach a foreign country: the political mechanisms are summarized, and Gurgeh takes in the nightlife, exotic terrain, and even winds up in a violent slum.
Azad, the game, is central to the text, but its rules are not comprehensively introduced. Fortunately the absence of the rules did not compromise the suspense of each game. Instead of providing a dry pamphlet of rules for readers to argue over with their friends, Banks tends to summarize Gurgeh’s broad strategies (defend when others join together in attack, divide and conquer, etc.) and his interactions with other players. For what it’s worth, I found myself thinking of Risk, Age of Empires, and Magic: The Gathering while reading about Azad.
Banks offers few details about the mechanics of the game, but I still found Gurgeh’s advancement in the tournament compelling. Gurgeh encounters unique circumstances in each game, but the text devotes just as much time to the way the tournament transforms Gurgeh. He slowly sheds everything but the game from his life as he proceeds through the tournament. If Gurgeh is little more than a player of games, what will he become when he devotes himself to a game that is representative of a culture antithetical to the Culture? Although I’ve never been an obsessive games player, I have participated in less demanding tournaments than Azad, and I found Gurgeh’s narrowing focus familiar. I also found myself understanding how some people can devote so much time and thought to a few games.
In The Player of Games, Banks offers readers a unique space opera. As in its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, there are drones, unusual alien cultures, and an epic perspective as two civilizations find themselves at odds with each other. However, I found that The Player of Games’ accomplishment was its focus on the way a single person prepares for and participates in an unusual tournament. Readers looking for an accessible entry into Banks’s Culture novels should consider starting with Jernau Morat Gurgeh’s adventure with Azad.