Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Mini-Review: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

A few months ago I was very saddened by the announcement that Iain Banks had terminal cancer and was only expected to live a few short months in the best case scenario. At that time I had only read a short story or two of his and not any of his novels, though I had copies of several and have been meaning to for many years. Of course I reacted to the news by finally choosing to read one of his novels. Since that time Iain Banks has passed on and now that I have finally read one of his books I can more fully appreciate the magnitude of his loss to the SFF community.
I wanted to read one of the books from his Culture series, which is less of series and more of a setting in which a lot of stand-alone, space-opera style books are set. And there is a good bit of dissention on which book is best to start with – Consider Phlebas (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), the first one he wrote, The Player of Games (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), or Use of Weapons (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Each has a good case for it, though in the end I chose to read The Player of Games, as it’s generally recognized as one of his better books and a good introduction to the Culture.
The Culture is a large galactic civilization and a human-machine symbiotic society that is so far advanced is essentially a utopia. Within the Culture there is tradition of gaming and Gurgeh is one of the best there is (yes, that is one of the most unfortunate character names I’ve ever come across). The short of it is that Gurgeh is manipulated by government forces to represent the Culture in the neighboring Empire of Azad where a complex game forms the pillar of its society.
The Player of Games is a relatively straight-forward story of Gurgeh’s trip to Azad, his first contact with their society and his more important journey through a grand tournament of Azad where the winner emerges as the new Emperor.
Parts of the book could be read as a condemnation of authoritarian governments, colonialism, and militarism. And with the gender flexibility of the Culture and the rigid gender distinctions in Azad, additional gender issues are certainly present. And while all of these are interesting, the real enjoyment come through simple story of game play, getting to know Gurgeh and seeing how he changes through this experience, and enjoying the knowledge that he’s being manipulated from afar the whole time.
The ultimate end of the story is expected, and the big surprise will likely not be a surprise to most readers, however as I’ve indicated above, it’s enjoyment of the journey that drives this book. Banks makes it all seem effortless, only to make us miss him even more. So, what’s the best way to honor a SFF writer who died before his time – read his books of course.

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