"This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player named 'Gurgeh'. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle and ends with a game that is not a game.
Me? I'll tell you about me later.
This is how the story begins."
- The Narrator
It is, by far, one of the best space opera books I've ever read, barring maybe Dune. And I'm not making that boast lightly. Player of Games should be a classic if it isn't already. Iain M. Banks takes the kind of plots that already exist in science fiction, and he screws with them to the point that they're much less recognizable. He deconstructs, plays things for laughs, reveals certain key details that only have meaning much later, and in general does everything he can to tell these stories in a new and interesting way. By the time the book finally drops to a close in its final downbeat moments, the plot will have twisted and turned every which way possible, from the games and counter-games played on the planet of Azad to the possible interference by the shadowy group known only by the "oh crap it's innocuous"** name of "Special Circumstances". And I loved it every step of the way.
The Player of Games is the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the most famous board game player and theorist in a futuristic Utopian society called the Culture. The Culture is a true utopia-- there are methods of immortality for those who wish it, people rapidly evolve to adapt to any new environment, anything about a person can be changed, there is an all-encompassing tolerance, and pretty much everything that can go right does. There's a shadowy side to it all, but we'll get back to that in a moment. For now, all anyone needs to know is that the Culture is a splendid place to live and Gurgeh is an unbeatable games master. But Gurgeh's life is getting dull. The games are all too easy, his friends are more concerned with reveling in small pursuits than progress and accomplishment, and the delights of the Culture are starting to bore him more and more. One of Gurgeh's companions, an AI-controlled robotic drone named Chamlis, cajoles him into talking to Contact, the Culture's diplomatic division, in the hopes that they might have an assignment for him. Gurgeh is eventually reached by a drone who claims to be from Contact (but might actually be from Special Circumstances) with an assignment: go to the Empire of Azad, an entity the Culture has had limited diplomatic relations with, and play their national board game, the game that governs their entire society and way of life, where the ultimate prize is the rank of emperor and side bets frequently include body parts and imprisonment. While Gurgeh declines, a blackmail plot by a drone "friend" of his forces him to accept the deal and go to the far-off Empire to play the game. As Gurgeh advances through the tournament, though, the bodies and enemies begin to pile up, leading to a showdown on a fire planet that seems both completely predictable (in that it's a climactic showdown) and completely unexpected (in that holy crap does nothing go as planned).
What makes the book great is its fully-formed world and the people in it. The Culture and Azad have their own languages, names, ideas, and various traditions. No planet seems generic, nor do any of the characters or concepts seem anything less than fully fleshed out. While Gurgeh's friends (both human and organic) don't feature often, they do seem like they have their own lives and pursuits, all congruent with the portrait we're given of the Culture. Even the ship names, such as Conflict of Evidence and Lack of Subtlety are unique to the Culture, though a bit of a running gag. While the villains of the work are monsters, to be sure, there's a certain twisted rationale behind their motives and methods. None of it seems manufactured or rushed-- you get a really good sense of who these people are and what their motives are, as well as where they fit into their cultures. Even more impressive than this is that the book is only three hundred and nine pages and manages to pack all the setting in without creating a ton of info-dumps. That every page can tell you both information and plot and still keep one interested is no mean feat, and Banks does it here effortlessly.
Furthermore, for a book about playing a board game over and over, the games are written more as fight or battle scenes than straight games. This is established early on with the board games played in the Culture, and carries on through the action of the book. Banks handles his action sequences with much more intensity and grace than most people would. In fact, most other authors would probably have either made the game a lot more hands-on, or played the sequences out with more internal stakes, so they could drive up the intensity but keep the game placid. What Banks does is that he actually goes out of his way to keep the turns interesting and yet still keep the game on its course. While I would most definitely lose, I find myself wanting to play Azad more and more from his descriptions of the game. Also, Gurgeh even loses games. Not enough to kick him out of the tournament, but where someone else would make their hero win every game, that Banks allows his to lose, sometimes to be utterly crushed, is a good touch. This further cements one in the events of the book.
However, in the interest of some objectivity, I must point out a few things. One, that in certain places, the book slows down and does not regain its pace until much later. The pacing is normally great, but in a few moments here and there (usually between games), it kills the rhythm dead. The other major flaw involves the blackmail plot. It makes sense that Gurgeh is blackmailed for cheating in a crucial game before he leaves for Azad, as that drives the plot and makes it more sympathetic-- he can't leave or refuse the offer, because the blackmail is hanging over his head. But there is no real reason why he would cheat. He's not seeking glory, or playing simply for the accolades of his accomplishments, and he himself even says he could easily win the game without cheating. Add to this that the drone character who forces him into things is incessantly annoying, and the whole thing is just wrong. But these are small flaws, and best left forgotten.
In the end, I am kicking myself because I don't own this book. I should own this book. I should not have to take it out of the library, though I do admit the sense of urgency and danger of late fees add to how quickly I finishd it. The Player of Games is a brilliant adventure story filled with dastardly villains, multilayered intrigue, narrow escapes, and some very interesting world-building skills. Pick this book up. Read it. Love it. I'm sure you will, as there's precious little to hate about The Player of Games. I fully recommend this to anyone who likes a good space opera, and a good read in general.
*Which was arguably the most amusing way of acquiring books for review that I've featured here. I kind of want to do it again. Any suggestions, put 'em in the comments thread.
**The general rule of weird fiction, when not going completely out there, is this: The more innocuous a department or organization name, the more you should run away from it at top speed. If there's ever something called the "Department of Assessment", it usually means they're responsible for destroying the world if a crisis gets too large and their influence borders on the omnipotent.
Next Time: Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm, the prequel to his whacked-out classic Zanesville.
- The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
- Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey
And just in time for the movie and a comparison review:
- On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers