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A Deadly Game To Play
The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks
Member Name: Mauri
The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks
Date: 20/04/06, updated on 24/04/06 (167 review reads)
Advantages: Well written, imaginative and exciting
Disadvantages: Only to those who don't like good Science fiction
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.
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.
‘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
Summary: Second Novel in Bank's 'Culture' series