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The Player of Games Review


Ian M. Banks is a key figure of modern science fiction, and his Culture series one of the most famous and well known of space opera. His second book in the series, The Player of Games, follows the story of Jernau, the foremost game player in the Culture, and his quest to learn, play, and win, the game of Azad and to ultimately defeat the Empire of Azad at their own game.

By far the greatest talent of Banks is his imagination, his love and passion for the worlds he creates. It is most beautiful of all in the burning fire world of Enchronodel, where a ring of land at the center of the planet is a constant burning ring of flame, that races around the planet in a never-ending dance of fire. Banks has a flair for the universe he creates and a constant talent for imagining new scale, from General Colonization Units, to the orbitals of the Culture, to the fire world, the sheer number of people and diversity of the universe.

But this also continues to be mixed with Bank's problem of visualizing Culture society beyond its drama, beyond the realm of the players of games, of spies, and of the whirl and dash of war. It is a shame since we get hints at just how unique and fascinating the Culture is, with the end of gender as we know it, its complete lack of laws, an absolutely different social organization, the mentality differences that must creep in from what is effectively immortality - but this barely trickles through, and the Culture itself is an enigma, one where only some of the haziest notions of its life and society trickle through.

This includes too, the characters, where only Jernau and to a limited extent his drone (for most of the book a very dislikeable and annoying character), have real definitive personalities that stay with us throughout - there are some strong characters certainly, like the Emperor, but they are only with us for a vanishingly short period of time, more like cut outs than actual people. Jernau himself as a character seems like a playboy, only interested in the game - and it takes dramatic intervention to get him to care about the world outside of just his toys. It is a shame that Banks didn't incorporate more other characters, since he clearly had some promising entries, like the Azadian female player, met at a ball at the beginning of Jernau's time in Azad, or the judge who plays and loses to Jernau.

At heart, Banks loves drama and excitement, even a tinge of melodrama, but this is also part of why I enjoy The Player of Games more than Consider Phlebas. Consider Phlebas too has an incredible imagination which comes up with dramatic events and a grand universe, but it is so filled with incredibly melodramatic and sensational events that it almost feels pornographic at some times, or a universe that is a freak show of cannibals, unstoppable warrior races, and universal death. By contrast, although The Player of Games does have its moments of sensationalism, like the need to display the evil of the Empire of Azod in terms of its forbidden broadcasting of sadistic pornography, or the cataclysmic end, it feels more normal, more relaxed, than Consider Phlebas.

And Banks does use this to be able to explore how a game represents a cultural mindset of the person playing it, Azad as a display of the ideals of the Culture and Azad. It is a simplistic representation perhaps, one that can only be written about as eloquently by carefully keeping Azad itself as a game in the dark, but which also is a biting critique of our own civilization and the structures which provide for its own ideological sustainment. This is a key theme in all of Banks' Culture books that I have read so far: that to exist a civilization must have a reason, a justification, something which keeps it going, and that a challenge to this, to its central ideal, is the greatest danger that it could ever face. Thus the Chosen went to war rather than admit that the Idiran could not be culturally colonized by them, and the Idiran had their ideal of bringing order to the galaxy: so too the Empire of Azad, based upon the ideal of force and might, would find the challenge presented intellectually by the Culture to be poisonous to its very foundation. Banks must think a lot of our own society and what keeps its structures intact.

There are limitations to the Culture series, but The Player of Games fixes many of them and makes for a fascinating look at a future universe, which combines grandeur, drama, and intrigue to produce a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction book.

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