Review: The Player Of Games, Iain M Banks

What I love about science fiction is how it reflects our world right back at us.  Science fiction might be set The Future! but it’s always written about the present. That’s why there are so many dystopian teen romance novels – teenagers feel that the world is messed up (it is), that everyone is against them (probably not), that their personal emotions should be given equal weight as the sociopolitical unrest unfolding around them (definitely not). Good science fiction often reflects a reader’s world; great science fiction explains it. For my money (and it was quite a lot of money after I bought all his books), the late Iain M Banks writer was one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time because he explained our world with great insight.

The Player Of Games by Banks is one of my favourite books of all time. Published in 1988, it is the second book set in The Culture universe, and I think it’s the best book to introduce the series. The Culture are a mix of human and AI citizens living in a utopia. A real utopia, too, which is a refreshing change from the dour dystopias of our time. It is a nomadic culture, run by benevolent AI, with a socialist, post-scarcity economy. The Culture is where you wished you lived. It’s the best part of Western culture, filled with personal freedoms and technological marvels. The citizens of The Culture spend their time being happy. Nobody works, unless they want to. Instead they spend their days travelling, hanging out with friends and family, romancing each other, creating art, and basically living great lives (or not travelling, ignoring friends, refusing romance, destroying things – whatever they want to do, basically. The Culture doesn’t judge).

And they play a lot of games, too. Mostly for fun, of course, but some people get really good.

Set against The Culture is the Empire of Azad, a much smaller civilization in which wealth and social power is determined by how well a citizen can play the complex game of ‘Azad’. The Empire of Azad represents the worst of the Western culture. It offers the illusion that people can earn their way to the top by literally playing the game (called Azad), but in truth the game is rigged. Women and other minorities can’t play, the rich have greater advantages than the poor, and so on. (It’s worth noting that Banks was a socialist. If this makes you angry, you may be an American). The Empire of Azad is a cruel place, and some of Banks’s writing made me feel ill, but everything he talked about in the ’80s is probably now available in some dank and horrible corner of the web.

So, two cultures set against each other. But if the Culture is Western society at its best, then it doesn’t only care about its own peaceful, democratic, hedonistic freedom. They also care about spreading this peace and pleasure to other worlds. Sometimes this requires diplomacy and trade, sometimes this requires the dirty tricks brigade, the Special Circumstances group. The suffering of Azad cannot be left unchecked. Enter Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a man who spent his life mastering every game in existence, because in the Culture that is considered as worthwhile a pursuit as any other. Special Circumstances blackmail Jernau into traveling to the Empire of Azad to play in the great games. What happens next is brilliant, funny, sad, and wonderful as Jernau falls in love with the game and the empire even as he is being used to destroy them. And what a game – this book is worth reading just for the mechanics of Azad in all its glory.

Banks is a subtle writer. Setting the best of The Culture against the worst of the Empire of Azad opened my eyes to why modern Western culture is wonderful and terrible. It helped me see the gears of the world. Banks’s books are dense. They are complex, insightful, colorful, subtle.  They challenge me; each time I finish one, I feel like I level up as a reader. The Player Of Games can me an emotional onslaught at times, but it is worth it.

Read this if: You like subtle fiction, politics, and brilliant science fiction.

Rating: Don’t say ‘Six stars out of five’, just say ‘That’s Iain Banks’.

The Player Of Games is available here.

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