Writing about Reading: The Player of Games

August 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m sure you’re probably tired of me raving about Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, so I’ll keep this brief. The Player of Games is not a book I expected to like, mainly because the plot revolves around a professional game player playing a game.

Of course, since this is Iain M. Banks, the story doesn’t quite fit into that too-tiny nutshell.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is not a gambler, but he has made a name for himself as one of the best game players—if not the best—in the entire vast Culture. Which game? Well, all of them.

Such is his prowess that he’s become bored and fallen into a deep funk in the beginning of the book. And then he is offered the chance to play an entirely alien game created by an alien race that is not yet part of the Culture. The game is Azad, and it determines the fate of every single citizen of the Azad Empire. The best player becomes the Emperor, and other ranks in the government and throughout society are similarly based on one’s prowess at playing Azad.

But, of course, all is not as it seems. Soon Gurgeh realizes the stakes are much higher than he was led to believe. Alone in an alien society with only a surly drone and a drunken Culture ambassador for companionship, Gurgeh realizes he is playing the game of his life—literally.

I have to admit, I almost skipped this book when I read the synopsis. Even the first few dozen pages were a struggle. The book quickly takes off, after that, however, and once again, Banks mesmerized me with his unique universe. One part in particular gave me a jolt; the hero is challenged to a game at a party but the host doesn’t have a set, so one is ordered from a store in town and delivered quickly by drone. Given I had just read a news story about tacos delivered by drone in California, I wondered when the book had been written and flipped to the copyright page … where I found Banks had published it in 1988! Granted, his drones are far more than the dumb, remotely controlled devices we have today; Banks drones, in fact, are intelligent machines with personalities and all the rights of human citizens. It would be more in line to compare the game-delivering drone to a pizza boy of today. But it was still an eye-opener.

So if you, like me, are tempted to skip The Player of Games, don’t. It’s fantastic.

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