The Player of Games: A space opera about board games

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Player of Games by Iain M. BanksThe Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games (1988) 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.

~Ryan Skardal

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks science fiction book reviewsThe Player of Games (1988) is the second published book in the well-known Culture series featuring the post-scarcity utopian machine-human galactic empire known as the Culture. Once again Iain M. Banks adroitly chooses to focus on the interactions of the Culture with a non-Culture society, this time the more primitive empire of Azad. The Azadian society is centered around an incredibly complex game called Azad, and every six years it holds a tournament that begins with 12,000 players, with the winner becoming the Emperor. The idea is that anyone brilliant enough to master the game and defeat all rivals is worthy to run the Empire as well.

Jernau Gurgeh is one of the Culture’s greatest games players, and this is saying something in a sprawling galactic empire where most of its citizens are devoted to pursuing their hobbies and entertainment. Of course, being so good and facing few difficulties in life, Gurgeh feels a bit unsatisfied. When he is presented with the opportunity to play in a game with more complexity and layers than anything he has ever played before, he is immediately drawn to the idea. However, it takes a little old-fashioned blackmail to push him into action, and I found this a bit implausible since he is supposedly a strategic genius. He really walks right into a trap that anyone should be able to recognize. But his desire to find a new challenge apparently overrides his better judgment.

The remainder of The Player of Games is devoted to Gurgeh’s playing in the Azad tournament, which is a massive media event in the Azad society, something like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, United States presidential election, and Superbowl all wrapped up in one. We see how the Azadian press initially considers Gurgeh an oddity, and not much of a threat. However, as he steadily dispatches stronger opponents and evolves his style of gameplay for each round, the Azadians become increasingly hostile to him doing excessively well in their sacred sport.

I felt there was a strong parallel to foreign sumo wrestlers here in Japan, who have enjoyed great success, especially three Hawaiian wrestlers in the 1990s (Konishiki, Musashimaru, and Akebono; the latter two reached the highest rank of Yokozuna, which automatically makes them social icons). Initially people thought it was quant that gaijin were attempting Japan’s ancient national sport, which first came about as part of Shinto religious ceremonies. Therefore many Japanese became alarmed when the Hawaiian wrestlers started winning too much, and the first of them, Konishiki, was never promoted to Yokozuna partly because he was foreign, if you are the suspicious sort.

Fast forward two decades, and the two most dominant Yokozuna in recent years have both been from Mongolia: Asashoryu and Hakuho. Hakuho in particular is so tough to beat that the audience sometimes celebrates more when he loses since it’s so rare (and the way they celebrate this is by throwing their futon cushions down onto the wrestling mound, which is fairly demonstrative in an otherwise well-behaved society). So you can definitely sense when a culture is feeling threatened by foreigners intruding on its national sport, even if it doesn’t want to admit it.

The Player of Games reaches its climax when Gurgeh reaches the final round of the game to face off directly with the reigning Emperor, who by definition is their greatest player. At this point Gurgeh is purely focused on the game itself, and doesn’t seem to be overly worried about what might happen if he actually wins. Would he become the next Azadian Emperor? He isn’t at all interested in such an outcome, but cannot resist the allure of beating the most formidable opponent the Azadians can field. Of course he also hasn’t really thought about why the Culture might be willing to involve himself with such an important event. Again, I was a bit surprised that someone so incredibly sophisticated at game play wouldn’t be interested in the larger game being played between the Culture and Azad. There are implications of the game that do not become clear until the end, and a game player like himself should be thinking many moves ahead.

The book is well-paced and engrossing, despite it being almost completely centered on just a few characters and locations. It could easily be a stage play without much adjustment. And unlike the previous Culture novel Consider Phlebas, there are no large-scale battles or extended action sequences, because the game itself is the big attraction. And Banks does a good job of keeping each round different and interesting. I had the feeling that he felt obligated to use more traditional space opera tropes in Consider Phlebas (even if it was partly in order to subvert them), but got this out of his system and felt freer to explore the decadent side of the Culture in The Player of Games. It’s a finely-crafted book and a good entry point into the Culture universe.

~Stuart Starosta

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks science fiction book reviewsThis is a unique story in Banks’ fascinating CULTURE,  a society where everyone is comfortable and lacks for nothing. The hero, Gurgeh, goes to play a game on a world where this game is thought to mirror life. Whoever wins the game, must be a “winner” and gets to be the emperor. This is much different from life in the CULTUREwhich, as Gurgeh says, is “not a heroic age.” Besides watching the personal obsession of a gamer, there are some interesting ideas here such as the importance of potential loss for the ultimate feeling of fulfillment, and the idea that an empire is similar to a living organism that wants to preserve itself. I also loved the volcano planet. That was awesome.

~Kat Hooper

The Culture — a human/machine symbiotic society – has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game…a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life — and very possibly his death.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Cool! “The Master of Go” set in a futuristic universe!

  2. liam /

    I think what you are forgetting is that the Minds where the real protagonists in the story. They wanted the azadian empire to change… quickly. The game was an opportunity to overthrow the empire, effectively, without an, or at least minimal, bloodshed. This is very much the mo of SC.
    As for Gurgeh being manipulated by the Minds, again, remember that they are godlike in their knowledge and intelligence. The first book of the culture released, CP, had the lone instance of a human who was betterbetter than, out at least as good as, the Minds. That’s something Banks never again mentions and, in fact, goes out of his way in later books to point out that the Minds are better than non Minds (in terms of what they can do) in every way. IOW, it makes perfect sense that they would know just how to manipulate even a human level genius like Gurgeh.

  3. Liam, you’re right that SC is very adroit at manipulating events behind the scenes, and that the Minds’ intelligence surpasses mere humans, even a genius like Gurgeh. At the same time, even a human with average intelligence should have smelled a set-up when Mawhrin-Skel offered to help him cheat early on.

    • liam /

      I certainly understand where you’re coming from, Stuart. I think the issue is that you need to start with the assumption that the Minds are hypercapable. As such, their maneuvers might seem absurd to you but that’s because they aren’t aimed at you. As you’ve rightly said, Gurgeh is one of the great human strategic geniuses in the Culture. As such you’d expect him not to think like “a human with average intelligence”.
      From the outside of the universe there’s the regular problem of depicting superhuman intelligences. Typically Minds are kept at a distance (that is they aren’t usually the perspective Bank’s employs), for obvious reasons. A very similar problem is trying to think of a plot that would ensnare a genius like Gurgeh. In short, I think the specifics of the plot didn’t matter in these cases because something really satisfactory is either going to impossible.
      I hope this makes sense:)

  4. I get that the Minds are super-intelligent, but my point remains: isn’t it pretty stupid to accept the offer of a drone (which has been kicked out of SC) to help you cheat in a highly-public game, without ever thinking that you might get blackmailed in the future? It doesn’t take a game-playing genius to see that.

    I’ll be posting a review of Use of Weapons soon, so I’m interested to hear your opinion. Banks’ Culture books always generate some good debates.

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