Iain M. Banks Culture novels represent some the greatest science fiction of the last twenty-five years. The Player of Games is the second of nine Culture novels released so far and like the other Culture novels it revels in its ability to go out on a limb and explore big ideas whilst providing well-developed characters and compelling plots.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Banks’ science fiction writing is his ability to overturn tired clichés of the genre and make them exciting and fresh again. Banks’ imagination is something to admire – it seems that he is never short of a great idea. It also helps that Banks’ writing is highly literate, displaying a level of sophistication not always seen in science fiction.
The Culture is a representation of human civilization thousands of years into the future. In The Player of Games one character refers to the benefits of eleven thousand years of space travel. They travel in style too, with a range of massive spacecraft that are ‘Minds’ – conscious, sentient, intelligent and with senses of humour. The Culture also has varied habitats. This time the protagonist lives on an artificial structure orbiting a sun with ‘plates’ - massive artificially constructed environments with landmasses and oceans. Another feature of the Culture are the ‘drones’ – sentient machines that share equal rights with humans. Basically the Culture is a near utopian society in which technology is almost boundless and where no needs or wants remain unfulfilled. Of course it’s not as simple as that and the Culture certainly has its dark side - represented by the mysterious and sometimes nefarious organisations ‘Special Circumstances and ‘Contact.’
The Player of Games is the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, one of the greatest game players the Culture has ever seen. As far as protagonists go Gurgeh is complex, flawed and grumpy but likeable. In fact I think that Gurgeh is modeled on the author himself. Gurgeh is described bearded with pointed features, which is how you could describe Banks himself.
After years of winning and luxuriating within the Culture Gurgeh is bored. When he mentions this to his drone friend Chamlis, some strings are pulled and Gurgeh finds himself being visited by a rather contrite drone from Contact. Gurgeh eventually finds himself on the way to the Small Cloud of Magellan (called the Lesser Cloud by the Culture) to the Empire of Azad - a barbarous but complex civilization that is dominated by a game that mimics life itself and helps decide who will rule and who will fall by the wayside.
What transpires is compelling entertainment and is never predictable. Having said that I guessed what was really going on at a certain point, but then perhaps I’ve read too many science fiction novels. Banks doesn’t bog down the narrative by trying to explain how the game works, instead he focuses on the psychological intensity of actually playing the game itself for both Gurgeh and his opponents. Along the way there are plenty of entertaining encounters with the Azadians, a race of beings that have three sexes and whose society is intensely hierarchical.
Perhaps the most entertaining section of the book is when the game players travel to the planet of Echronedal, a fire planet with a bizarre ecology dominated by the incandescence – a strip of volcanic fire that travels around the equator. The planet’s ecology is based around this destructive fire and Banks makes the effort to explain how it all works. Banks’ imagination is wild but he always makes the effort to build a cogent world around his sometimes outré ideas. On Echronedal Banks also indulges in his love of castles, with the final rounds of the game being played within the halls of a giant and sombre castle. Here the novel reaches an exciting and terrible climax.
Player of Games is one of the best Culture novels I’ve read. As usual Banks delivers well-drawn characters, including the machines, coupled with a tightly constructed plot that is littered with excellently executed ideas. You couldn’t ask for more really and I’m looking forward to finally catching up with the last couple of Culture novels – Matter (2008) and Surface Detail (2010) before the new one – The Hydrogen Sonatas is released. If you are curious about modern science fiction or have never read Banks, then head on down to your favourite bookstore (you do have one right?) and invest in this great writer’s works, you will not regret it.