Backlist Burndown Review: The Player of Games by Iain Banks

May 29, 2015
Backlist Burndown Review: The Player of Games by Iain BanksThe Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Series: Culture #2
Published by Orbit on December 1, 2009
Genres: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Pages: 416

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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.Praise for Iain M. Banks:

First, I want to address the fact that this is marked #2 in a series. It is the second Culture book, but I was assured that not only could I start with this one, but that it was also an excellent introduction the The Culture novels. This is the first and only book I’ve read in the series, and from what I can tell, I can agree with that.

Gurgeh is the ultimate player of games on his planet. He lives in The Culture, in which humans and technology have come together to offer what sounds like a type of utopian society. People generally don’t have to work, as technology handles everything for them. There seems to be no crime, and when there is it is punishable by having a companion droid tag along with you forever as punishment. Now I did wonder, after you get one of these, what prevents you from committing more crimes? Evidently it makes you a social pariah, which in this society is viewed as worse than death. What then? What do they have to lose? This was one minor nitpick I couldn’t help but think about. Perhaps that was addressed in the book somehow and I just missed it.  But regardless, the point is that in this society, people do what they want to do, they don’t need law enforcement because people just regulate themselves. They are provided with everything they need, so there are no “crimes of necessity”, people don’t need to steel to feed their starving family, because they are well provided for.  Pretty much it’s Utopian Communism. In space.

While it makes for nice fiction, I don’t know that I believe this state it truly attainable. I am sure there are many question like the one I posed that when you stop to think about it, there’s just too much that could go wrong and crumble The Culture to pieces. At least in my mind. But, for the sake of the book, it was interesting. And it gave Gurgeh the option of doing nothing but play and master games. And he was very good at it, so good he starts to become bored instead of challenged. With no occupation or purpose, and as the challenge of the games fade away, it leaves him feeling a bit ‘lost’ for lack of a better word.

Gurgeh’s success at the games brings him a somewhat mysterious opportunity to play a game called Azad in the Empire of Azad. An offer he just can’t refuse, despite years of commitment  (it takes him two years just to get there) and a complete lack of knowledge about how to play the game. Oh yes, and the complete possibility of death. There may have been some less than ethical persuasion involved in getting him to go along as well, but I’ll let you read about that yourself. Initially the only thing he really knows about the game is that social standing is completely determined by a person’s ability to play a game. It’s like tennis ladder for life, where the game is Azad. Going to the Empire highlights the differences in these two societies. It brings up weaknesses and strengths of both, though I have to admit, there seemed to be more benefits to living in The Culture than in the Empire.

Gurgeh was in some ways not entirely likable, but at the same time, a character I enjoyed reading. And the more of the book I read, the more I liked Gurgeh. The story was interesting and I’m glad I selected this one as a Backlist choice. And wether I believe The Culture is possible or not, I would love to live there, at least for a while.





I have challenged and committed myself to reading at least one book from my backlist every month and posting the review on the last Friday of the month. I invite anyone interested to join me and link up their own Backlist Burndown reviews. I will offer the link at the bottom of my monthly Backlist Burndown reviews, and also will keep a running record of the reviews on my Dracarys! Backlist Burndown page available from my top menu.

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