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The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks

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Author: Iain M. Banks / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 10 August 1989 / Genre: Science Fiction / Subcategory: Science Fiction General / Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group / Title: The Player of Games / ISBN 13: 9781857231465 / ISBN 10: 1857231465

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      19.05.2012 20:26
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      A well structured novel about the doings of a Culture game-player!

      ORIGINS:
      We set off on Iain Banks' science-fiction fantasy adventure with the tale of a changer named Bora Horza Gobuchul in the first of many, 'Consider Phlebas'. It was during the time of the Idiran / Culture war, and Horza had been drafted in by his three-legged companions to embark on a dangerous mission rather befitting of his physical, often aggressive personality. Full-bodied mercenary action littered a compacted descriptive explanation of the social universe our character found himself in - a universe Banks subtly eased onto his reader before bringing forth the existence of such eccentricities as the Culture mega-ships and Vavatch Orbital. He did well to leave so many avenues of expansion looming (something difficult to avoid in a sci-fi setting I admit...), and by the end of the novel little had been explained with regard to the bigger picture. We were left wanting more.
      It was the machine orientated Culture society about which Horza's mind-hunt had been orientated that I felt most curious (most wanting). And maybe that was Banks' intention, as 'The Player Of Games' is all about that 'biologically-detached' (as an Idiran would have put it) network.

      800 YEARS AFTER THE WAR:
      When reading this second novel, you begin to realise the full extent of collective bias Banks is attempting to get across (between the two societies). You are launched into the Culture with a viewpoint which sets their way of life as the neutral / logical direction from which individual aspirations can blossom in a safe environment - where citizens are treated in a general sense, so that no one person is secluded (and therefore vulnerable to attack). In many ways, this is a major theme of the tale - the idealism of safety from psychological and physical influence - as it is from the belly of blackmail (completely uncharacteristic of the Culture) that the main character finds himself (due to an act of selfishness) in a very difficult situation. He becomes involved with 'Contact' - the society's explorationary / military department which seek to assimilate foreign cultures into theirs. He is taken from the comfortable 'normality' of Culture living that the Idirans despised, and thrust into something entirely different (...something that to us is far more familiar) - I'll explain later.

      THE HUMANOID - GURGEH - AND OTHERS:
      Game-player Jernau Gurgeh (the main character) is a celebrity of sorts. One of a handful of gifted individuals, he is an expert in a large variety of popular games - most centring around 2D and 3D 'boards' with pieces (some biologically altered), cards, and most importantly, complex rules. With the help of accepted drugs Gurgeh and every other player can 'gland' to help control their nerves and increase their clarity of thought, the game-player - for the past 200 years or so - has been playing in tournaments across the galaxy, and from his home Orbital, 'Chiark's' university campus. He is well-known, well-respected, and well-informed of the games (new and old) which are being played around him - but this only detaches him from other areas of life, making him less adventurously natured and less knowing of ways outside the sphere he operates.

      I found that Banks described the game-player's personality with greater comprehensiveness than Horza's. This time he used more the interactions between secondary characters and Gurgeh than the thoughts of the man himself. A rather grumpy sole, Gurgeh is bored with the artificial environment he lives, annoyed at its pointless similarities with natural worlds, and irritated by the younger people he is surrounded by at the campus.

      I think it's safe to say his one true friend (and someone who has known Gurgeh's family for many generations) is Chamlis - an ancient drone some millennia in age, with the level of common-sense and logic you would expect from a personality of his experience. He acts as Gurgeh's guide, a trusted, almost parental figure the man feels he can reside in about almost anything. I think Banks does well to expand on this particular characters persona, and (particularly) the relationship it has with the other drone significant to the story-line, Mawhrin-Skel.
      I love Mawhrin-Skel's sheer bluntness and arrogance, and the fact Gurgeh initially liked the drone before the plot thickened. An ex-Contact operative, Mawhrin-Skel had been stripped of its powerful weaponology, hyper memory capacity, and general advanced systems after being chucked from Contact for bad behaviour / misconduct. As the story builds and the first twist strikes, you are stunned by the little machines piercing intentions which ricochet through Gurgeh's life-style in the most dramatic of ways.
      Gurgeh has another friend named Yay who he describes as promising. With her intelligent and understanding - as well as young and excitable - ways, she is another character Gurgeh feels comfortable around.

      In all, this small cast dominates the dialogue - and there is enough variety of character within the characters to do this well. Banks has developed a great range of personalities which he gets across to the reader with exceptional precision.

      AZAD EMPIRE:
      When things turn interesting, Gurgeh's 'celebrity' life is suddenly (and rather dauntingly) transformed. Recruited by Contact, he is sent on a 5-year mission to the threatening, but still young galactic Empire of Azad - which stretches across a thousand suns in a separate cloud cluster of the galaxy Culture resides. The imperialist political system in operation within this Empire is unlike any the Culture have come across for such an advanced and large society. As Banks explains, usually networks of Azad's nature come to a dramatic end after the potential to dominant multiple habitable worlds - with the discovery of light-speed travel - is obtained. But you see Azad (whilst remaining a fascist-styled regime) is scarily different - It is a game-revolving Empire.

      The game is its most prominent feature, and the novel explains this in detail as it is both key to the story-line (for Gurgeh especially) and is an interesting subject for a sci-fi novel to explore. Similarities with 20th century real-world societies mount up with regard to the regime and its game. Played on three 20-metre diameter boards, and several smaller boards, Banks describes the game of Azad as having near unlimited possibility of differing events (giving it its complexity), and the basis of the game is strategy. Though it, and other games played my Gurgeh are not explained fully, Banks does give you a thorough enough description to express the general goings-on, though he focuses more on the importance of the spectacle within the society it is played.

      I found the way Banks used Gurgeh as a platform from which to question the imperialist Empire's way in comparison with the socialist Culture's very impressive. It was an excellent thing to do, and probably says a lot more about Iain Banks' political views than those of Jernau Gurgeh's.

      The major point - The individual who wins, is the individual who rules. The tournament to decide the new Emperor is played every 6 Culture years, or 1 Azadian year, and though the group selections are subject to 'randomisation', in actual fact everything is fixed by the aristocracy. To give the masses the sense that they too have a chance, they can enter with their life (instead of their wealth) as a bargaining chip. Gurgeh enters into the tournament with an ambition to gain knowledge to satisfy both his own interests and those of the Culture - but that doesn't make him immune to the physical wagers opponents can impose on one another. As he advances through the rounds (to the amazement, turned anxiousness, turned anger of the press - and therefore the people) he is met with several threatening challenges which if not overcome will destroy him...

      OPINION:
      I found the story of the game-player Gurgeh truly original, and inspiring. The novel delves ever deeper into the caverns of the Culture, helping the reader to understand the society's biological civilians, equally considered drones, sentient minds and the mind-boggling infrastructure which links them. You paint a sturdy mental image of the networks way of operation, and life. You understand individual and the greater views, as well as the place each conscious entity has within the overall system. Gurgeh is a much less heroic / outlandish character than Horza (in the previous novel), and this helps Banks to show a new perspective to his world - one which shows more the happenings of the ordinary (though celebrity), placed into the unknown (- so that comparisons can then be drawn). Banks writes with greater strength and intent, and the novel is far better structured than Consider Phlebas in many ways. Though shorter, more seems to be expressed about the Culture in The Player Of Games - and that's what makes this book truly special.

      RATING: 4.5 / 5
      AVAILABILITY: Amazon.co.uk (the best for books by far).
      PRICE: £4.94

      Thanks for reading!

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        23.01.2012 10:28
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        Best in the series that I have read

        This was the first Iain M Banks book I read, originally about 18 months ago. I had read several of the same authors work previously under the Iain Banks name,( it seems his hard Sci-Fi books are published with the middle initial added).

        His Sci-Fi books are a long running loosely linked series which started with Consider Phlebas, they are also known as the Culture novels as this is the name of the advanced race the books investigate. The Culture has advanced to a point where nobody need work unless they choose to, there is no illness and their advanced intelligent space ships perform any mundane tasks including building new ships. The citizens only need concern themselves with passing their time in enjoyable pursuits.

        Player of Games was the second book published in the series and for me probably the best I have read so far having read three more since this one.

        The action follows an episode in the life of Jernau 'Morat' Gurgeh who is a 'Player of Games' a master of all the advanced and complicated games the Culture indulge in. He is persuaded by the 'Special Circumstances' section of the Culture to travel to a distant planet to take part in a game. The game played by The Empire of Azad is so complicated and plays such an important role in their society that the winner becomes emperor of the society.

        Jernau is initially reluctant but the action soon shifts to the Azad home planet where Jernau becomes more interested in the game and discovers that the Azad are a brutal and very different race to the generally peaceful Culture. The Culture are however much more advanced than the Azad and Jernau begins to wonder the real reason he has been asked to take part in the contest.

        Although the book was published in 1988 it has stood the test of time well, perhaps because it is set in such an advanced civilisation the real life changes in technology have little bearing on Banks' fantasy world. Also the novel is not overly concerned with the realities of the technology involved which in my opinion can make some hard Sci Fi novels become bogged down to the detriment of the story.

        Although most of the Banks' sci fi novels inhabit the same Universe and the activities of the Culture they are always written as stand alone novels and quite readable without reading them chronologically.

        This one is 309 pages long in the paperback version and Amazon will happily send you a copy for £6.79.

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          26.05.2010 18:22
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          Another of my favourites of all time

          Iain (M) Banks first introduced us all to the Culture in 'Consider Phlebas': a harmonious society where all the real thinking is done by Artificial Intelligences, and humankind is free to pursue whatever takes its fancy. There are few limits on a Culture citizen: no one gets sick, you get to pick your own gender as and when you fancy, and life spans are vastly extended, if not approaching immortality. Really the question becomes: how to fill your time?

          Enter Jernau 'Morat' Gurgeh - 'morat' meaning game player. Gurgeh is a master at pretty much any game ever created, with few offering him any real challenge any more. Looking for something more - and with a bit of a push from the shady Special Circumstances division of the Culture's government (for want of a better word) - Gurgeh agrees to take part in a game beyond a game. In the distant Empire of Azad, the game also called Azad (meaning 'life') decides on everything from politics to the structure of the church. The winner becomes Emperor; but for such a prize there must be equal risks.

          And so Gurgeh is sent in as both alien ambassador and the Culture's token game player. Of course he's not expected to do particularly well - he's had a few years to learn the game rather than the lifetime immersion of the Azad residents. And perhaps that he's not expected to gain a particularly high ranking from his participation means that he can avoid any of the nastier forfeits of the game. Right? But then, why exactly are Special Circumstances so keen to have him face that risk?


          I'm going through a phase at the moment of rereading the books that stand in my memory as favourites - despite not being read for the better part of a decade. I was already a fan of Iain Banks before trying his sci-fi offerings, and must confess that the first attempt - Consider Phlebas - left me a little cold. I found it somewhat dry and hard to get involved with, despite the fantastical settings and adventures.

          Not so the second of the 'Culture' novels: The Player of Games (PoG) was a story I totally became wrapped up in, and all these years later I think I love it even more. From memory, all I could really recall was the power of the descriptions of the Game: I knew that Banks had never *really* described it fully, fleshed it out beyond suggestion level, and yet the whole thing was incredibly real and full and alive.

          On rereading, I rediscovered a lot more to this novel than I had recalled. Instead of a rather strange and distant view of the Culture from Phlebas, PoG gives a very individual-level view of a society which is both utopian and yet somehow sterile. With all the technology and advances available, it strikes me that the human-like race of the Culture could easily have descended into pure debauchery. Perhaps it's the calming influence of the super-intelligent sentient machines that keeps everyone above that, with humanity determined not to completely let the organic side down!

          What comes across very well in the first part of the story is the ennui that can arise from living in a perfect society: Gurgeh is master of his chosen field and there's really not much further he can go. His attempts to rediscover a little excitement soon snowball into events so massively out of control it's all he can do to hang on! That sense of things growing beyond manageability is very well written, and I could practically feel the growing sense of panic as Jernau Gurgeh realises how far things are falling so quickly out of his influence.

          Of course, the reason I didn't fully recall this section of the story (other than having a really bad memory!) is that it's overshadowed by the move to the 'alien' world of Azad. Here is a culture so opposite to the Culture that it really throws things into perspective - not least, I'd venture to suggest, because our own society is far closer to one extreme than the other, and it's not the nice civilised one! ;)

          Again I have to offer praise for the handling of the Game. It forms a huge part of the bulk of the book, and to have it remain so engrossing without ever being fully formed is a masterstroke - there's a fine balance between revealing deeper levels to the game as the planet-wide competition continues and never suddenly changing the rules or structure simply to fit the narrative's needs. Gurgeh's constant struggle to learn the intricacies of both the contest and Azad's society are fraught with a growing tension. The glimpses into the 'real' world beyond the game - both that of Azad and of the Culture's galactic political manoeuvring - come as even more of a shock to both character and reader, and - in my opinion - show that science fiction can provide a very good mirror to our own times, albeit if you're able to peer past the distractions.

          And then: oooh, but the denouement! I can say no more, obviously, but it reaches a very satisfying crescendo, in my opinion, pushing me ever closer to the edge of that metaphorical seat!


          Almost a decade on, then, I'm happy to report that The Player of Games holds its place as one of my favourites. It has the advantages of not being too heavy on the 'science' part of the fiction, while still remaining fantastical enough to be fascinating; and of being both a slim stand alone volume, and part of a much bigger setting that continues with so many more, equally brilliant, Culture novels.


          ~Boring bits~
          Paperback: 309 pages (Orbit 1998)
          First published in 1988
          RRP: £8.99

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            09.12.2009 19:36
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            An excellent novel, highly recommended

            After reading and very much enjoying a few books by Ian Banks, including The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory, I decided to give his alter ego, Ian M. Banks a try. They are the same author but Ian M. Banks books are science fiction whereas Ian Banks are literary fiction. A friend recommended I start with a book in the culture series, The Player of Games.

            In this book, Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the player of games. He lives in a society known as the culture, and this is a nearly utopian society without violence or death where the only problem people really face is boredom. In fact, most people in the culture end up requesting their own annihilation in the end, but live hundreds or thousands of years before doing so. Gurgeh has built a nice life for himself in the culture, surrounded by many friends including some drones, and enjoying an excellent reputation as the best game player in the culture.

            Then along comes a young woman who gives Gurgeh a run for his money, and he is tempted by a drone into cheating to try to prove his superiority. When he does cheat, the drone blackmails him, and the result of this is that Gurgeh must accept an invitation to go and play a game in another galaxy within the Empire of Azad.

            The Empire of Azad is a cruel, violent, militaristic culture that is disconcertingly like our own. Azad is an unequal society where there is great poverty, and where men and especially women are treated as inferior to a third gender, the apices. Within the Empire of Azad, the game which is also known as Azad is all-important. The winner of the game becomes the emperor, and the result each individual obtains determines their rank within society. However, individuals form groups and gang up on others, and therefore no woman has ever made it through the first round of Azad.

            Gurgeh must play the game although whether or not he is meant to win it even by the culture becomes increasingly unclear, as do the consequences of either winning or losing. It becomes apparent that Gurgeh's life is in great danger.

            It also becomes more and more unclear as to whether Gurgeh is a free agent playing the game, or whether he is himself a pawn in a greater game being played by forces he barely understands. The question of free will plays a large part in this book, as Gurgeh believes that there is only random chance, yet was it his free will that led him to chose to cheat, and does he have the power to stop playing the game even if he wants to?

            The writing style in this book is extraordinary and brings to life these other worlds so well that it's possible to picture them in your mind very clearly. The final round of the game, for example, takes place on a planet called the fire planet, where there is a thin land mass at the equator, and the rest of the planet is water. Twice a year a great fire sweeps across the land and the animals and plants that live there have had to learn to adapt. They either do so by constantly running in front of the fire and never stopping, swimming out into the oceans, or burrowing deep into the ground. Plants must rise from the flames like a phoenix in the wake of the fire's destruction. I find the image Banks paints of the fire planet quite beautiful.

            I highly recommend The Player of Games if you're in the mood for a book that's challenging and will really make you think. I'll definitely be reading the other novels in the culture series, but will take a little break first and read something a bit easier for a break.

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              20.04.2006 13:23
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              Second Novel in Bank's 'Culture' series

              Those of you familiar with Iain Banks dark Psychological novels ‘The Wasp Factory’(1984) and ‘The Crow Road’(1992) might not have realised that he also writes Science fiction under the slightly different name of Iain M Banks. His first foray into science fiction was ‘Consider Phlebas’ (1987) in which he introduced the concept of ‘The Culture’ later to form the basis of many of his other sci-fi novels and short stories. ‘The Player of Games’ (1988) was his second Sci-fi novel and expanded his vision of humanity’s future.

              THE NOVEL

              In a far distant future humanity has developed to the extent that people are virtually immortal and their every wish or dream can come true. Near perfect symbiosis has been achieved between human and ‘machines’. The super intelligent computer entities have rights and freedoms equal to the organic life forms. Spaceships and other ‘technology’ are considered as individuals. Humans are free to change their appearance even their gender thanks to the advances that have been made, disease and poverty has been eradicated. Humans have to a large extent been genetically modified all having special glands that can be used to specifically respond to the variety of stimulating drugs and chemical that everyone uses to enhance their emotional and physical responses.

              Humanity has become concerned with having fun rather than surviving. The inhabitants of the ‘culture’ world spend their time playing sports, games and generally partying although in the background the Culture and its special operatives exert a subtle benign control.

              Our hero is Jernau Gurgeh a master games player who is renowned all over the Culture universe as being the best at all strategy games. As is the danger in such a utopian society the lack of real challenge in life can breed apathy and boredom, Gurgeh feeling in need of a challenge is intrigued by an invitation presented to him by the Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section to travel to the distant empire of Azad an exotic place outside of influence of the culture, to take part in the ultimate game. ‘Special Circumstances’ is part of a bigger organisation called ‘Contact’, which deals with the Culture’s interactions with other civilisations. The Empire of Azad uses a fantastically skilful and complex game also known as Azad to completely define its social hierarchy. The skills needed to do well in the game reflect the skills needed to succeed in high office, put simply the winner becomes emperor, losers could die.

              Azad is not a futuristic utopia though and in the process Gurgeh finds out the danger that are associated with such a impulsive and emotional society as he becomes involved in blackmail, treachery and murder. The final irony is that Gurgeh the master player quickly discovers himself to be a mere pawn in a much bigger game.

              OPINION

              This for me is Iain M Banks at his best. He uses the two phases of the book, first the ‘perfect’ world of The Culture and the second in the passionate, brutal world of the Azad empire to contrast the aspect and paradoxes of human nature. We all like to believe that in the modern world we are now more civilised and morally better off than we have ever been but this civilisation is but a thin veneer that can be stripped away at any moment to reveal a more primitive, more primal existence. The human paradox is simple we as a race strive towards perfection, toward our idea of Utopia but what makes us so successful is the need to be striving for our goal once that has been achieved then the purpose of living becomes less clear. At a time when we achieve immortality we might no longer desire it. Banks presents us these lofty philosophical problems in the guides of entertaining story telling. This is what good thoughtful science fiction should provide it’s reader and what many authors before Banks the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury and Heinlein have tried to do.

              Another interesting aspect of the book in the difference in the style of Sci-fi portrayed. The part of the story taking place in the Culture is firmly in the realm of modern science fiction, while the account of the Azad empire gives a well intentioned nod to the ‘golden age’ of science fiction in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s where futuristic society where imagined as vast galactic empires on ancient Roman model, dominated by court intrigue and featuring giant space cruiser fighting it out amongst the stars with deadly laser cannons.

              This book is bristling with great ideas proving that Banks indulges his dark imagination in his science fiction works just as much as in his other prose.

              Azad is portrayed as an opulent empire, immensely rich and promoting a image of grand finery in it’s rituals and ceremonies. Yet at the core this is brutal world. People are exploited for sexual gratification, laws are bent to suit the whims of the hierarchy and murder is commonplace.

              Some intriguing ideas are introduced to the reader, for instance Banks makes the Azad a tri-sexual race, male and female exist as second-class citizens with only the intermediate genre known as ‘apices’ are allowed to attain powerful positions in the government and thus succeed in the game. By doing this as with most good sci-fi writers he manages to incorporate more serious themes of discrimination, sexism and racism in to what is essentially a sci-fi thriller. This is what for me differentiates good science fiction from more ordinary but no less enjoyable examples of the genre.

              Banks also introduced many of the mechanical entities Drone or robots as meaningful characters in the story and Chamilis, Gurgeh’s longstanding drone friend is a pivotal character in the novel.

              Banks also gives us a Labyrinth Prison in which convicts have to find their way out as part of their punishment. The maze is not only physical but also moral and behavioural. The prisoner must respond correctly in order to find their way out.

              “…a perfectly good person can walk free of the labyrinth in a matter of days, while a totally bad person will never get out.”

              Another aspect of Bank’s writing, which is worth noting is the breath and scale of the vistas he imagines. This is not parochial science fiction but deals with vast galaxies and mysterious exotic planets. The climax of the story, the venue for the ultimate game is a ‘Fire Planet’. On this planet a layer of fire known as the ‘incandescence’ is continuously moving along the landmass that circles the world in an unbroken ribbon. The fire takes half a year to circle the world destroying but at the same time rejuvenating all that it finds in its path.

              This is just a small example of the fantastic images that Banks uses to bring the novel to life.

              At the end Banks presents us with a moral ambiguity in the resolution of the story. Are the Culture seen to bee ‘right’ or does Azad despite its brutality prove themselves to be a more egalitarian and ultimately free society.

              In short this book is a great read and a very good place to start for first time Iain M bank readers. If you do like this then I would urge you read the rest of the Culture novels, which continue to expand Bank’s vision of humanity’s distant future.

              Highly recommended!

              ‘The Player Of Games’ can be bought in paperback (320 pages), published by Orbit (ISBN: 1857231465) from Amazon for £6.39 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.

              © Mauri 2006

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                22.10.2005 15:22
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                A science fiction story about a clash between to very different civilizations

                This book is a good starting point if you want to get into reading Iain M.Banks science fiction. The book is the second of his science fiction novels following on after Consider Phlebas and personally I found it an easier read.

                The novel takes place in Banks’s imaginary civilization known as the culture. The culture is a kind of egalitarian utopia where humans and machines with artificial intelligence live in symbiotic co-existence. The book is relatively easy to read because it explains certain concepts that exist in the culture, for example a drone or a mind. The drones are robots who float around in the air and do unpleasant activities that humans would rather not such as fighting in wars, cleaning and maintenance of machinery. A mind on the other hand is a highly intelligent entity usually contained on a space station, minds tend to do all the decision making in the Culture. The Culture is such a technologically advanced civilization that it can create its own planets for humans to live on, however the planets are not spherical but giant loops which orbit around a sun.

                The main character in the story is a man by the name of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, he is the probably the best game player in the whole of the Culture. The games played Gurgeh are complicated board games a bit like Chess or Solitaire. Gurgeh is quite an eccentric and befriends an ex-combat drone who is a bit of a rogue. The drone encourages Gurgeh to cheat in one of his games against another very good games player and then blackmails him. Little did Gurgeh know that the drone was working for the secret service of the culture known as Special Circumstances. Gurgeh’s fates is that he has to fly off to a distant and barbaric civilization known as the Empire. The Empire is seen as a great threat by the minds of the Culture, the Empire has quite fascistic regime and no respect for other civilizations which they are bent on conquering. Gurgeh is required to play the game of Azad which is a complex war game, Azad is basically the political system used in the Empire. The best Azad players in the Empire end up being the decision makers and politicians. A strange thing about the Empire is that three sexes exist which are male, female and a sort of intermediate sex. The intermediates are the only sex who can really play Azad, the males and females are therefore deemed as inferior. I won’t go into any further detail because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story if you decide to read this book.

                I found The Player Of Games quite fascinating and Banks seems to be a man with quite some imagination to think up so many weird and wonderful concepts. I have now read about four of Iain M.Banks science fiction novels and enjoyed them all, but some of them were quite heavy going in terms of understanding the new concepts introduced. This is definitely the most easy to read the Banks science fiction novels because it is mostly about humans rather than communication between minds. The storyline is one of the most original I have ever read and I would highly recommend this book to anyone, you certainly don’t have to be a science fiction junkie/geek to appreciate it. If you decide to read this novel after viewing my opinion – ENJOY!

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                  15.05.2001 06:33
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                  Morat is both a name and a description. In the Culture, each individual chooses how to complete their name, and the man known as Jernau Gurgeh chose to be known as the Player of Games, or Morat. This player will use any of the many complex boards created by members of the Culture, the society in which he lives. The unique nature of the Culture throws Gurgeh his biggest challenge, a game that is life itself to an entire race of people. He travels across space, almost alone, for two years to compete in the game of Azad, which determines position within a society much more reminiscent of our own than the Culture. This book is hard for me to explain. The concept seems simple enough, hell, I probably explained it all in my opening paragraph. But there's so much more to it than the simple plot, which is why I love it so much. I can only say that the book has an atmosphere. I think of Gurgeh in his house, Ikroh, and I can almost feel what it is like. I've only read the book twice, and the last time was a good month ago now, but I can see his house in my mind. Perhaps it's because I want to live there myself, but I think it's more Banks' remarkable descriptive talent. The key to the success of this book is how Banks applies this talent to a wide range of items and events, from the mundanity of Gurgeh's life to the state of cities and the nature of the Culture itself. Gurgeh is, essentially, bored. We start the novel exploring his life; the endless papers, parties, gaming tournaments and recreational events he takes part in. We learn about his friends, from the robot Chamlis Amalk-Nay to his mentee Yay Meristinoux, including many others on the way. Throughout the first hundred pages or so, we learn about the operational realities of the Culture through Gurgeh's eyes. We get examples of the advanced technology they use, both in the form of intelligent Minds (who run ships, planets or are simply autonomous drones) and more co
                  nventional systems like transport tubes and replicators. We also see the darker side of this system, the administration, and more specifically an intelligence agency-like organisation called Special Circumstances (or SC). Gurgeh has a friendship with a drone who was decommissioned from SC, and it is this drone's blackmail coupled with his growing boredom that leads Gurgeh to seek out SC and ask for some kind of mission. After a few entertaining meetings, they send Gurgeh to the Empire of Azad to play the game of Azad as a representative of the Culture. This is where Banks shifts to exploring different ideas whilst still maintaining the effective storytelling we expect from him. Azad is ruled (as empires tend to be) by one man. This man is the winner of the yearly tournament of Azad, so chosen because the skills he puts to use to win the game are respected as the skills needed to lead the empire. The fact that I have used the word "man" in every case is important, before the year we observe with Gurgeh, no woman has ever got passed the first round of the tournament, and very few enter in the first place. This is just one of many similarities to our recent past and present. The race has three "sexes", and only one of them holds any position of power. Alien races contacted more often than not are subjugated, and the Culture has only escaped war by placating them and keeping their true figures and location carefully hidden. Gurgeh learns more about the Empire through it's TV broadcasts, by interacting with various people at various receptions and during the game itself, and through nocturnal trips with his personal drone (and once the Culture ambassador) to the less affluent areas of the cities. We share in Gurgeh's surprise and disgust at the state of this planet because of the excellent groundwork laid in the first 100 pages of a fair and equal society. Gurgeh surprises everyone when he actually manages to win his
                  first round game, embarrassing a promising young up-and-coming priest in the process. From then on, he is in much more danger, facing threats from other players, citizens amazed that an alien could win a game of Azad, and the establishment of the Empire trying to protect itself. Gurgeh's surprise at these reactions may appear naïve to an outsider, but to some extent we as readers share in it, again because of the background explained in the beginning of the book. The book is not entirely serious, however, and a wonderful faux pas where a porn song is played as the 'national anthem' of the Culture is one of many comedy moments that are so much funnier in the context of the novel. The crux of the entire novel, however, even more important than the plot itself, is a crucial comparison. The Culture, in all it's Utopian glory, or the Empire, with it's ruthless 'efficiency'. Which would you chose? The wonderful thing about The Player of Games is that it is written from Gurgeh's perspective, so even the most cynical reader can see how the Culture works and understand the barbarity of the Empire. It is a real eye opener, and manages to make people think about our current society too. I guess now it comes as no surprise that I am a big fan of the Culture, after the whole Mayday ruckus, but reading The Player of Games without worrying about being converted, and there's every chance you will have more sympathy with that cause. Believe it or not, I wasn't always some mad, idealistic crusader. This novel suggests you think more carefully about the society we live in, something that can never be wrong. Plus it is a wonderful story in itself. Gurgeh is a believable character, we sympathise with him throughout, and his reaction to the Empire is one we can all understand. There are plans afoot to make this book a film. If it happens, see the film first. Nothing can measure up to the book, but I'm sure if you've n
                  ot read the book the film will be great, because it is a good, solid story with plenty of scope for special effects. But most of all, read the book. This story is probably my favourite ever read, I enjoy it even more than American Beauty. I've had to be pretty restrained to write less about it than I did about that film, and I've managed to keep some of the plot hidden, but don't think I'm any less passionate about this book than I am about that film. Utopia - one day we'll make it.

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                    21.04.2001 21:05
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                    This is the second best Iain M aBanks novel I've read behind Against a Dark Background. Set in the culture, a super advanced machine/human symbiotic galactic civilization of the future the hero is a man expert in the playing of games. An odd character the book follows his development through realisation of the wider aspects of reality than his self pleasure and the games he plays. He travels to an empire less advanced and far more barbaric and animalistic than his culture to play the greatest game, a game so complex it rules the lives of all those in the empire deciding who lives, who dies and who is emperor himself. As he plays the game he realises that more is at stake than he first thought and that he may indeed be playing for his life and the lives of all those in the empire. A brilliantly absorbing book I literally couldn't put it down, Banks at his best, a stunner read it now.

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                    01.07.2000 04:53

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                    This is the second of IMB's Science Fiction novels and is set in the same universe of the Culture as established in the excellent 'Consider Phlebas' (recommended). The novels are not a series, however, and can be read on a standalone basis. This story is about a professional gameplayer who moves from his somewhat decadent life of playing games in the Culture to a society where winning and losing becomes a case of life or death (or at least castration !). IMB has a fluid writing style that continually holds the attention. The fictional universe in which the story is set is well realised and detailed together with interesting characterisation and interaction of humans and robots.

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                    14.06.2000 19:25

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                    I like Banks' culture series on the whole but I just couldn't get into this one. I tried but couldn't care. The characters were not just unsympathetic but they weren't intriguing either. The sexual politics came straight out of the seventies (from the male side) and put me off straight away (and Banks is usually good on this point). I got this real sense of Deja Vu from it - like I knew this story and it's not much good - when Banks' stuff is usually wonderful for its originality and a new take on things. Oh well everyone has an off day.

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                    11.06.2000 17:47

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                    As the heading suggests, this is the most forgettable of the Culture series by Iain M Banks. This might stem from it being the first one I read, and therefore not understanding smoe of the finer points, so don't write it off completely. This is an enjoyable book, which I reccomend to any fans of either Banks or the genre. However, I found the ending to be a bit poor, as, well...read it and soo what I mean. I didn't find it particularly satisfying. But then again, Banks had written some excellent books, so it's only to be expected that he's written some less interesting ones. In short, buy this book, and read it after some of his others (so you know the background and aren't put off if you don't like this one), but before the likes of Excession and Use of Weapons (so you've saved the best til last).

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