Iain Banks’ 1988 science fiction debut Consider Phlebas received a middling amount of attention upon its intial release (considerably more in the time since). But given the speed with which a second sci-fi book was produced, it would seem the potential for the Culture had been rolling around in Banks’ mind for some time amidst his mainstream efforts. Published one year later, The Player of Games is the follow up novel that does not exhibit the intergalactic imagination of the books that would come, but does indicate the author honing in on the major themes and ideas underpinning his far-future vision of post-human existence. If it is to be taken at face value, then humanity may see great improvements to its quality of life, but at the expense or benefit of losing its most primeval instincts.
The Player of Games is the story of Gurgeh, an ageing games master with literally only a handful of people in the galaxy who can match his prowess on the boards. Ennui and boredom the result of his dominance, after a touch of “real world gamesmanship” Gurgeh accepts a commission from the Culture to head to the distant planet Azad and play their local, eponymous game. Azad a game that resounds with tradition, it also plays a strong role in determining leadership—the current Emperor the most recent Azad champion. Though Gurgeh is expected only to represent the Culture as an ambassador, winning unnecessary, he soon finds facets of the game that not only pique his interest but shake him from his boredom and challenge the meaning of being alive. Whether or not it’s “all just games” is up to the reader to find out.
There are two main hooks of The Player of Games. The first is the advancement of Gurgeh’s character, both personally and through gaming. He becomes a different person. But seeing the ennui that plagues him at the start of the novel slowly peel away to reveal the real person inside is only half of Banks’ ambition. The other is the dichotomy of cultural expectation and behavior that evolves from that expectation. I will not spoil the story but suffice in saying Gurgeh’s experiences can easily be seen as an extension of the social agenda that was part of the novella which started it all, The State of the Art.
But where character development and social relevancy are well structured, potentially lacking are some important details which would make the story truly original. The aliens on Azad are like Star Trek aliens: humanoids with 99% similar features, behaviors, etc. (something remedied in later Culture novels). Given Banks’ agenda, however, it’s entirely possible their portrayal as such may be fully intentional. The reader will have to make up their own mind.
What can’t be forgiven in the imagination department, however, is the game Azad itself. Jack Vance in writing his inter-planetary adventures created several ‘real’ games. Hadaul from The Face and hussade from Trullion: Alastor 2262 are both described in detail, from rules to objectives, game boards to playing styles. Banks, despite basing the whole book around the one game, does only part of this. Playing style is described in relevant, satisfying detail (it is, after all, a character-oriented novel), but nothing more is added save vague details describing the board and game play. Never once are rules or detailed objectives outlined. Were a real game to have been created (like that in Consider Phlebas with rules and goals stated clearly), the story’s core would better complement character motivation and the themes being driven at. As it stands, Azad feels like a large scale version of chess, but never actually fully manifests itself. Incomparable given the lack of details, the novel’s integrity is slightly limited as a result. Had the game’s objectives (other than winning) been stated in better detail, I can’t help but think the cultural symbolism would have appeared stronger.
From a plot perspective, The Player of Games is a standard novel following an A-B-C format that never leaves the reader trying to catch up. This is to say, it lacks the multi-viewpoint, non-linear plotting of later Culture novels like Use of Weapons or Matter. A simpler affair, Gurgeh’s progression through the story builds suspense admirably, but is not presented with such complexity that a re-read brings to light any fresh aspects of story or content. At 308 pages, it is also the shortest Culture book. It is, however, a brisk 308 pages.
In the end, The Player of Games is a significant improvement on Consider Phlebas and shows Banks finding his feet in the Culture. Lacking is the polished, unique feel of later novels, not to mention a complete version of the feature game, Azad. That being said, the novel does show a stronger connection of theme to story. The differences between post-human luxuries and contemporary human vice the focus, Banks’ libertarian agenda is well highlighted. In the context of Banks’ oeuvre as a whole, those who like Consider Phlebas will enjoy The Player of Games for its similarities in style and occasionally sensationalist content. Those who better appreciate the more complex efforts of later Culture offerings, like Excession, Look to Windward, and Matter will also enjoy The Player of Games for its plotting, but may find something missing. For all fans of the Culture, it’s a must.