Book Review : The Player of Games

, in Books, Science Fiction

A book by Iain M . Banks set in his nigh-utopian "culture" society that features a strangely named misfit with a unique skill who gets manipulated into performing a mission of great danger and importance. Who could have guessed?

In this case, the weirdo is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, who is very,very good at games. So good that he the perfect choice to travel outside of the Culture to the Empire of Azad to play the greatest game he has encountered. The game is simply called Azad, and is based on (or forms the basis for) the tenets of the Empire's society. Those that play the game well gain power, prestige, and government posts, even the emperor is selected this way. Those that play and lose fare badly. Azad (the game) is fantastically complex, so much so that actions that take place on the room-sized boards are supposed to represent the core philosophies of the players, making it a fantastically useful HR tool. Anyone who wants to get anywhere in Azad society devotes their lives to the study and practice of the game.

Although Jernau is only supposed to be the token Culture participant, he finds that his alien playing style confounds the natives and he does better than anyone predicted, although at a cost to his somewhat fragile psyche. Eventually, as he learns more about the game and Azad society in general (linked as they are), Jernau comes to believe he could go all the way to the final and play for the empire itself.

The Player of Games is one of Bank's more approachable books, not having any of the stylistic or structural gimmicks of some of the other Culture novels. The story is pretty straight forward (there is a twist, but it is fairly transparent) but told in the usual imaginative style. The Azad are vividly described, seeing them through the eyes of somebody both living amongst them and playing against them is an interesting literary device. The book's main point that games are a window into the soul of a society is well realized, if maybe a little heavy handed. But you know what you are getting yourself into when you pick up an Iain M Bank's book, I suspect he types with concrete gloves.

Recommended if you like this sort of thing.