The Player of Games by Iain M Banks (ebook review).

Gurgeh is bored. A master game player who has fame and privilege.

As a citizen of the Culture, he also enjoys an idyllic long, healthy and safe life. The Culture is a huge and diverse society, which makes no distinction between organic and machine consciousness. This frees its citizens to an infinite choice of leisure activities and distractions. This is not enough for Gurgeh and he is searching for something more.


The Culture’s diplomatic and exploration section, Contact, occasionally finds something it doesn’t know how to deal with. Then, it sends in its hard-core department, Special Circumstances, to resolve it. Special Circumstances feels that it may have something uniquely suited to Gurgeh’s needs and talents. Is Gurgeh prepared to take a leap of faith and find out what Special Circumstances has planned for him?

After much soul-searching and manipulation Gurgeh is packaged off with an antique warship and a Special Circumstances drone to advise him. So begins the journey of a lifetime.

The Empire of Azad is a typical brutal hierarchical society where violence and death are part of life. What sets Azad apart is the vast game which gives the Empire its name. Success in the game could be a person’s means to advancement, failure could mean injury or execution. If you win through the rounds of the game, you become the Emperor. The current Emperor Nicosar and his ruling elite will use every means possible to keep their position, on and off the board.

A chance to play in the game is offered to Gurgeh, but at huge personal risk and sacrifice. His many years of game playing, are a small foundation for playing Azad. No game Gurgeh has played up until this point comes close to the level of immersive detail of Azad. Each successive level pits Gurgeh against better and harder opponents. As he progresses, it becomes less clear who is playing and who is being played.

‘The Player Of Games’ is a story with two main characters. The Culture is a benevolent uncle who uses its vast intellect to understand your viewpoint, while trying to persuade you what is right. When backed into a corner, it will reluctantly roll up its sleeves preparing to fight, all the time trying to talk you out of taking such a futile action. Azad is a viscous, capitalist bully out for everything it can get. It will hammer you into compliance or destroy you utterly. The game of Azad is like a medieval contest of champions to minimise bloodshed.

Iain M. Banks has always written beautiful and cohesive worlds, populated with convincing characters. The contrasts between the two societies of the Culture and Azad are pin-sharp and perfect. SF writing often falls flat with its characters, good goodies and dastardly baddies feel bland and unconvincing. Gurgeh’s journey from one society to the other is convincing and satisfying. You feel his sense of isolation and vulnerability and will him on through his difficulties and celebrate his victories. The people of Azad act out of a sense of tradition and a familiar desire for self-advancement. To them, an alien has defiled their sacred society and deserves all he has coming.

Iain Banks keeps the space-opera feel of ‘Consider Phlebas’ but on a smaller and more intimate scale. Despite the exotic settings, it is a book about people, whatever shape, species or origins. ‘The Player Of Games’ is the second in a series of Culture novels, all of which stand-alone or fit beautifully into the larger whole.

‘The Player Of Games’ has become a favourite. If ebooks could wear out, mine would be dog-eared and distressed. For scale and sweep, ‘Consider Phlebas’ would still be my Desert Island disc book, but only just. Reading a Banks ‘Culture’ novel for the first time is always an event. The highs and lows are seldom matched in any literary style, but it is the sense of witnessing a giant talent in action which makes each novel an unmatched experience.

I envy you if this is your first book in this glorious series.

Andy Bollam

(pub: Kindle/Orbit. 320 page ebook 538kb. Price: £ 4.74 (UK). ASIN: B002TXZT4I)


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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