The Player of Games is the story of Jernau Gurgeh, a legendary game player in the Culture society, who has found himself growing tired of life in general. He is a champion, who can beat nearly anybody in any game; a well-reputed scholar, who writes papers and reviews of game theory and new games developed across the universe; a ladies’ man, or perhaps better put, your typical bachelor, but aged by one-night affairs and the wisdom that comes from them. He receives an invitation from the Culture’s Special Circumstances unit to compete in an alien society’s game, Azad, that is tournament-like and, in the alien society of the same name, a game that determines each player’s social status, where the winner becomes Emperor. Gurgeh is hesitant to embark on the lengthy journey required to participate in the game, but after a series of events in which he is blackmailed and essentially forced into entering the tournament by a drone named Mawhrin-Skel, he soon finds himself on a distant planet, one that is much more adventurous and dangerous than his home on the Culture’s Chiark Orbital, playing a game that is anything but a game.
I found this book interesting for a couple reasons. One was in the way the book progressed. At first I wondered how exciting a book about a guy who played board games could be. But the book progresses at a good speed and, surprisingly, part of the fun is trying to figure out what exactly the game is. Banks never reveals all the rules or setup of the game, but through the description of the game’s play, hints at the details of Azad and leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination. Two, being but one story from the Culture series, it was interesting to learn about the Culture through the perspective of all the characters. The humans, the drones and the aliens all have differing critiques of the Culture, as a society, and the Minds, the most powerful forms of artificial intelligence, that essentially control the society. In this story, in particular, it was fascinating to see how even the seemingly trivial event of playing a game on an alien planet had repercussions that affected the Culture and, ultimately, the entire universe.
I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good sci-fi read. I’m hoping it’s not the best of Iain Banks’ Culture series, as it wasn’t that good, but it was definitely interesting. From what I’ve read elsewhere, The Player of Games is a good introduction to Banks’ Culture. It seems this story is also one of the lighter, easier to digest of the series. Overall, the storyline is great, most of the characters are rather interesting and, as a primer for the rest of the series, I think The Player of Games will pique your interest enough to really make you excited about reading more.