The Player of Games

by Iain M. Banks

Hardcover, 2024



Call number



Folio Society (2024)


Fiction. Science Fiction. The Culture � a human/machine symbiotic society � has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game. . .a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life � and very possibly his death.

User reviews

LibraryThing member edgeworth
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a player of games, a genius master of almost every game that exists. He exists in the utopian, want-for-nothing Culture with a sense of nihlism and ennui, challenged by nothing and bored by everything, until he is plucked from his comfortable life by Contact – an agency of
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the Culture tasked with dealing with other, potentially hostile, species. Contact has discovered a brutal alien empire in which the higher aspects of society are governed by a complex game called Azad. As the greatest game player in the Culture, Gurgeh is recruited to participate in the empire’s grand game tournament, which determines who becomes the emperor.

This is not because they or the empire believe that Gurgeh could actually become Emperor, Riddick style. Rather, he has been invited as a guest, and the empire does not believe he will progress very far, and Contact’s motives are vague and secretive. Gurgeh is backed up only by a drone and a sentient spaceship; the impression given is that neither this mission, nor the empire, nor Gurgeh, are a particularly high priority for Contact.

This a problem. It reminded me of the largest problem with the first Culture book I read, Look To Windward, which was that it lacked a sense of urgency. A boook does not, of course, have to be about saving the universe to have a sense of urgency. It just has to be urgent for the characters, and even Gurgeh himself never seems to be particularly invested in his circumstances. (Nihilistic characters always irk me.) One of the main themes of Consider Phlebas was about how, during massive wars and world-changing events, individual people really make very little difference to the grand scheme of things – and, although set against the backdrop of a hugely destructive war, Consider Phlebas is mostly about the immediate fate of the protagonist and the people he cares about. Yet I found myself much more invested in the plot of Consider Phlebas than I did in The Player of Games, because the events were drastically important to its main character. (Like Look To Windward, A Player of Games does take a dramatic turn towards the end, but it’s too little, too late.)

The other issue I had with this novel was that so much of it revolved around the game of Azad, yet Banks didn’t bother to actually create this fictional game, and is therefore prevented from ever going into detail about it. This is what a description of a typical round reads like:

The lesser games ended with the sides about even. Gurgeh found there were advantages and disadvantages in playing as part of an ensemble. He did his best to adapt and play accordingly. More talks followed, then they joined battle on the Board of Origin.

Gurgeh enjoyedit. It added a lot to the game to play as a team; he felt genuinely warm towards the apices he played alongside. They came to each other’s aid when they were in trouble, they trusted one another during massed attacks, and they generally played as though their individual forces were a single side. As people, he didn’t find his comrades desperately engaging, but as playing partners he could not deny the sene of emotion he felt for them, and experienced a growing sense of sadness – as the game progressed and they gradually beat back their opponents – that they would soon all be fighting each other.

…Nobody actually attacked until the last of the other team’s pieces had been ccaptured or taken over, but there was some sublte maneuvering when it became clear they were going to win, playing for positions that would become more important when the team agreement ended. Gurgeh missed this until it was almost too late, and when the second part of the game began he was by far the weakest of the five.

Vagueness and generalisations that could apply to any kind of generic competition. Every game in the book is described like this, and we get very little sense of what Azad is actually like. Gurgeh may as well have been playing chess or water polo or Starcraft. Granted, designing a fictional game (especially one that is supposed to be complex enough to represent life itself, as Azad is) is doubtless very difficult. But that’s the fruit that Banks picked when he decide to write a book called The Player of Games, about a game-player playing a game. And sure, such an attempt at designing an interesting game, and then writing exciting passages set within it, could also easily fail. But by deciding to avoid it entirely, Banks gives up without even trying, and that too is a form of failure. It contributed greatly to the sense of aimlessness and lack of urgency that I cited earlier.

There were a number of other things that irritated me. The book suffers mildly from the curse of sci-fi and fantasy writers, which is trying to fit too many ideas into one book. As Gurgeh arrives in the empire’s capital city, his drone points out a labyrinthine prison below their ship:

“The idea is that people who’ve broken the laws are put into the labyrinth, the precise place being determined by the nature of the offence. As well as being a physical maze, it is constructed to be a moral and behavioural labyrinth as well; the prisoner must make correct responses, act in certain approved ways, or he will get no further, and may even be put further back. In theory a perfectly good person can walk free of the labyrinth in a matter of days, while a totally bad person will never get out.”

Gurgeh’s moral character up to that point (and throughout the rest of the book, actually) was fairly grey, so I naturally assumed that he would find himself trapped within the prison later on, and both he and the reader would discover what kind of a man he truly was, while also being treated to an interesting literary set-piece full of riddles, puzzles and encounters. Instead, it never comes up again, the most egregious of several loose threads and pointlessly foreshadowed elements in the book.

I didn’t find The Player of Games to be a particularly bad book, but after hearing constantly about what a wonderful example of the Culture series it was supposed to be, I was very disappointed. I would still rank it more highly than Look To Windward, but lower than Consider Phlebas – which I didn’t exactly love. I’ll still read Use of Weapons, but if that doesn’t grab me, I may stop bothering with the Culture series.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
THE CULTURE: BOOK 2 | The Player of Games

The story opens in an orthodox 3P omniscient, but a 1P intrusion soon suggests an unreliable narrator (or are there two?). As in Book 1, Banks subverts the standard genre story, with the riddle resolved in the last pages.

Majority of narration follows
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Gurgeh, the titular Player, and the drone, Flere-Imsaho. A few pages describe circumstances of which neither could be aware, at least at the time.

I read from the 2008 U.S. edition (paperback), no supplements.


The premise feels like an alternative response to a question Banks asked and answered in the first book. Book 1 rejected the SkyNet trope of AI-run societies, suggesting that finding meaning is a more pressing concern for both pan-humans and AI. Book 2 seems to follow up by asking: what might that look like in specific cases? One nuance hinted at was the consequences from individuals lacking efficacy in such a society, given the complexity of social arrangements and the necessity of AI oversight. Both Gurgeh and a drone, Mawhrin-Skel, are presented as case studies.

The plot illustrates that no matter how rare or elite, no mind is exempt from exploitation by Contact and Special Circumstances. This narrative choice suggests the Meaning Conundrum is a Macguffin, and Banks is more interested in how power operates in the Culture. Because it always does operate, notwithstanding the naivete or protestations of some involved. The Culture's ethical code appears practical but limited, in effect relying upon mercenaries to act directly in some situations, and in others (especially involving Culture citizens) seeking a compromise in which the individual chooses to do what is wanted. It's difficult to think Culture operatives couldn't be trained to do what Gurgeh was capable of doing, but SC preferred to find a "real" gamer than to invent one. And yet, Gurgeh was consistently manipulated and misdirected.

One Ship plays an important part, but the eccentric Ships are not yet on display. (The drones Chamlin and Flere-Imsaho come closest to the trademark personalities in later Culture books.) Banks does survey an expanded inventory of ship classes, though only 1 or 2 feature specifically. Notable is that GSV class Ships support populations in the billions, much larger than Orbitals.

Interstellar space is explored a bit, the travel necessary despite warp speed, and Banks hints also at intraspace and hyperspace linked to an energy grid in all space, but with variable force dependent upon the distribution of mass. Banks admits later this is all very hand-wavey, his brand is not a particularly hard SF.


SYNOPSIS | Gurgeh grows bored with his success at all manner of games, and is presented with an opportunity to join a game in a hostile empire, a game which defines both much of that society's classes and hierarchies, and selects the new Emperor. Clearly, the Special Circumstances operatives have plans and interests which they withhold from Gurgeh, yet he accepts the offer. He hopes to both keep separate his competitive play from imperial politics, and outmanoeuvre his Contact handlers. Not even his drone companion, Flere-Imsaho, believes Gurgeh can succeed.

● Gurgeh pokes fun at the Culture name template, though IB infers some meaning when noting a drone's name indicates it was Contact / SC. [40] The episode demonstrates at least portions of his 1994 culture essays were guiding his writing, even at this early stage.

● At one point in Azad, Gurgeh is the guest of academics curious about how a post-scarcity society such as the Culture would work. There is some querying on the nature of money (the Culture's lack of it), power, and property. Conversation soon devolves into a pervading curiosity over sexual mores and body modifications. [284]

● Torture obsession continues here, as expected, neither particularly gruesome nor notable. Some is connected to the Game, some not (but of course, at some point it's all game). I find this the most tiresome aspect of Banksian fiction.
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LibraryThing member Sunyidean
Late to the party, but this was excellent. (This is what I mean about Banks being all over the map, for me--Consider Phlebas I rated 2 stars, this one a comfortable 5).

One of the best things about this novel, from a writerly standpoint, is that it so easily could be dull. Most of the novel is in
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"tell" rather than show. The MC is described with a huge amount of emotional distance (because the story isn't written by him), even though the story supposedly hinges on his highs and lows as hey plays. The main character, Gurgeh, is a straight up Mary Sue most of the time. And the central feature of the book, the game of Azad itself, is far too complex for the reader to actually learn all the rules, so the narrative spends all its time talking *around* the game.

And.... it... works. Really, really works. This novel is a case study (as Banks' novels so often are) of how to bend the rules in all the right ways.

To address the points above, having to talk around the game is what causes most of the book to be narrated in a tell-style, and removes much of the emotional filter. But part of why this works is because the book ISN'T focused on the highs and lows of wins and losses, as you might expect for a game about gambling. For one thing, that tension almost isn't there--because, as above, Gurgeh is just too good. You expect him to win. The tension comes from the mystery of the game itself. How high, how deep, how far does it go? To what extent does it define, permeate, sustain, and be influenced by, Azad society? Or indeed, all societies? What does the approach of each player say about them, say about their culture and mindset? These are riveting aspects, the sources of tension of fascination throughout.

A lot of skill went into the construction for this novel. As ever, Banks aimed high--and this time, he hit.
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LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
This is one of the two best books I've read so far this year, and I doubt it will be dethroned.

The Culture, from which the main character springs, is easy for a science fiction reader to identify with: technologically advanced, socially progressive, inventive and aesthetically pleasing. But it's
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hard not to see some reflection of our own Earth in the 'barbaric' Empire that the Culture's Player of Games visits. Some of his pecularities, Culturally speaking, make the protagonist seem a bit more like a man of our world and time than of his own. Those ambiguities and similarities are richly plumbed. I found my liking or disliking for the nuanced characters was seldom allowed to set firm, which added to the tension and played off the themes of the book.

The book's slowly building plot is engrossing, the concepts fascinating and epic. It has some cogent yet wildly imaginative settings and intriguing bits of worldbuilding that hint at insights into power, society and politics. It leaves much of this unsaid and unpacked, the plot central and the themes gathered tightly around it. In short, it's beautifully crafted. One of the things I admire about it most is the way it uses language, from the first, to demonstrate attitudes and ways of thinking. An artificial intelligence's tiny physical body is not small enough to fit in your hands, it's small enough to hide in your hands. It is after all not an object, but an entity, sentient and independent-willed. Tiny notes like this are hit throughout the narrative, illustrating the power of language to shape thought before the plot ever touches on that power. It's elegant, challenging, and entertaining.
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LibraryThing member tikitu-reviews
From what I've read (mainly Abigail Nussbaum's blog "Asking the Wrong Questions", where she's reviewed some three or four other Banks offerings), this is a fairly standard Banks novel of The Culture. The Culture is a utopian interstellar civilisation and Banks is very cynically exposing the nastier
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side of that picture.

The "player of games" of the title, Jernau Gurgeh, is blackmailed into acting as an ambassador for the Culture to a feudal empire founded on the playing of an extremely complicated game, used basically to regulate a caste and class system. As (I gather from Nussbaum) is frequently the case, Gurgeh's handlers do want something particular from his work as ambassador (slash spy), but don't want to tell him precisely what's wanted. Instead they manipulate him just as they are manipulating the empire, and leave both rather the worse for wear.

The cynical anti-utopian politics are rather predictable, and the plot more or less likewise, but I did enjoy the character Gurgeh very much. He's heroic in precisely one dimension, his ability to learn and master games, but the rest of his personality is neither heroically pure nor tragically flawed -- he's just as complicated and just as simple as most folks, which makes a welcome change from so much sf. On the downside, for a real game theorist the descriptions of games are both painfully vague and laughably unimaginative, and the sociology of the empire is painted with an equally broad brush.

All in all, I enjoyed it but I wasn't wildly impressed.
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LibraryThing member TimONeill
Possibly the sharpest and perhaps the bleakest of Bainks' socially satirical brand of science fiction. It doesn't take too long to recognise our own culture in the nastier aspects of Azad and its cut-throat "game" that decides who rules its despotic system. Then again, the Culture itself comes out
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of this one looking even more morally ambiguous than ever and the protagonist isn't exactly a knight in shining armour. Some amazing scenes, characteristically bizarre elements and sharp wit, but blacker than many of the rest of the Culture novels.
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LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
I read this second novel of the Culture hot on the heels of Consider Phlebas, and despite the shared setting of the interstellar civilization of the Culture itself and a few formal similarities, the feel of each book differs widely from the other. They are both structured around an ambivalently
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sympathetic central character with special abilities, and told by an obscured narrator, but the pacing of Consider Phlebas is faster for having shorter and more numerous chapters, along with more incidents of catastrophic violence. Of course, the protagonist of the first book is a declared enemy of the Culture, while The Player of Games is himself a Culture man.

The context of the first book was a rare war involving the Culture as a belligerent, but this one accounts for an alternative way in which neighboring hostile powers might be managed. The Empire which serves as this book's foil for the Culture is constructed with a lot of telling detail, and the game-as-pervasive-practice-and-pattern is played out here in a way that goes far beyond its archetype in the John Carter pulp adventure The Chessmen of Mars. I was a little disappointed that the complete opacity of the Culture's relationship to terrestrial humanity was not at all relieved in this book, but it is set some centuries after the previous one, and thus also further from us in time.

For the screen-oriented sf set, I'd recommend the Culture books to those who are more sympathetic to the "left" trajectory of Star Trek as opposed to the "right" approach of Star Wars. I think there's actually good fodder for the screen in this series (although not in the absence of capable screenwriters!), and their merits are not so much in their "literary" form or substance as in the accustomed genre pillars of world-building, technological imagination, social commentary, and "ideas" generally.

I will read more of these, but I'll take a pause until Use of Weapons falls into my hands, rather than vaulting over the sequence to the next one that I already own a copy of.
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LibraryThing member SpaceandSorcery
For a long time I've wanted to tackle Iain M. Banks' famous Culture saga, that's been often hailed as one of the most fascinating and interesting of our times. Several years ago I did read the first book, Consider Phlebas, and though I didn't exactly dislike it, it somehow failed to captivate
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Then I recently read some comments here on GoodReads about how the second book, The Player of Games, is really the best introduction to the Culture series, so I decided to try again. And this second attempt went much better.

In short, on the planet Azad the social, political and economic life revolves around a game – also named Azad – that shapes the empire and its people, whose entire life is dedicated to it, to the point that the outcome influences their social standing. Jernau Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, is sent to Azad to participate in the Game and at the same time to act as a Culture representative. What apparently starts as a diplomatic mission of sorts, with some double-dealing overtones, soon becomes much more, especially for Gurgeh: Azad will put to the test his game-playing abilities, of course, but also the very foundations of who he is as Culture citizen and as a person.

The story itself builds a constant momentum that involves the reader deeper and deeper, just as Gurgeh finds himself pulled into the Game to the point that it becomes more real than reality itself. One of the best characteristics of the book is that it skims over the rules of the Game, showing it through the players' reactions rather than in a dry list of technical detail, so that the story-telling remains very fluid – and enjoyable. If this is typical of Banks' narrative I believe he's just made a new convert, because I prefer stories where the author leaves details to the reader's imagination rather than boring him with unnecessary explanations that slow down the pace.

The Culture is however the main protagonist here: a star-spanning civilization that has reached such levels of sophistication that its citizens have left behind the troubles of contemporary humanity – not having to battle with illness, poverty, political or social strife, people from the Culture are free to pursue their goals, be they purely hedonistic or more knowledge-oriented. In short, a utopia. The differences with the Azad Empire are glaring: the reader learns, together with Gurgeh, that the Empire is indeed a cruel, merciless entity and that behind a glamorous façade lurks an underworld made of sadistic pleasures.

And yet the Culture itself is far from perfect, because even if the citizens live charmed lives, there are forces that work in secret, that manipulate individuals or circumstances to steer events in determined directions. I encountered one remarkable detail in that regard: while on Azad Gurgeh uses the local language instead of the Culture's own (called Marain) and with time this seems to shape his way of thinking, to mutate his response to situations. To the point that his companion, the sentient drone Flere-Imsaho (yes, in the Culture drones are considered sentients, and some of them have quite an attitude) tries hard to engage him in conversation in Marain to draw the man back to a different way of thinking. An apparently small detail, but a thought-provoking one.

All in all this was a great start to what I think will be a fascinating immersion in a multi-faceted universe: how could I resist, for example, huge ships with peculiar, tongue-in-cheek names like "Just Read the Instructions" or "So Much for Subtlety", whose sentient Minds seem very interested in manipulating events? Or the mysterious entity called Special Circumstances that has all the characteristics of a secret organization bent on shaping the course of politics or history? It's more than enough to keep me reading on...
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LibraryThing member RobertDay
This book, Banks' second excursion into the Culture, is a very different proposition to his first sf novel, 'Consider Phlebas'. That book was a fairly straight action-adventure story (most likely to sell to a publisher), albeit one told from the viewpoint of someone opposed to the Culture. Here, we
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are inside the Culture, and we are in a proper novel. Banks sets scenes, explores individuals, their lives and motivations in quite some detail. His set-pieces are still there, but they are smaller in scale (though the novel's climax is satisfyingly wide-screen and has more than enough action, I would suggest).

The Culture is contrasted here with the Empire of Azad, a robust society that places much emphasis on an all-encompassing game, also called Azad. This game dictates much of an individual's social standing; it is at the same time a tool for determining status, like a Civil Service entrance exam, and also a means of diverting the attention of those lower down the pecking order from the things that the Empire gets up to, such as alien conquest, repression of minorities (their own and other races'), torture and officially-sanctioned violence. The Empire considers itself a Major Player, and views the Culture as another race that they will conquer and subjugate when they can be bothered to get around to it; Contact, the diplomatic arm of the Culture, has different ideas and persuades a master game-player, Jernau Morat Gurgeh (the novel's central character) to travel to the Empire and engage in the next Azad tournament as a flag-flyer, emissary and unwitting pawn in political machinations.

The theme of the novel is the comparison between the Culture and the Empire; both have elements that we would recognise in our own society, though it is in looking at the Empire that Banks pulls no punches and it is fairly clear who we are supposed to compare with whom. In the course of making that comparison, Gurgeh's attitude changes; from being merely the best game-player the Culture has to offer, interested in the game as an intellectual exercise in gaming, he becomes determined to win, no matter what, and the game becomes the arena in which the battle between the Culture and the Empire is fought out - though to Gurgeh, it is simply a matter of trying to stomp on this society that he sees is not just another place with odd inhabitants, exotic habits and an extra sex but is rather a vile pit of hatred and arrogance that needs him to teach it a lesson.

As with 'Consider Phlebas', there is a 'Rosebud' moment at the end; and the Culture's super-science is lovingly described, both at the micro-scale (personal terminals, anticipating our relationships with our mobile phones by some twenty years!) and on the macro-scale (Chiark Orbital takes over as an imaginative setting where Vavatch Orbital in 'Consider Phlebas' left off) and all the scales in between (Gurgeh's ship is well described - as it should be, being as much a character as any other in the story), and a drone is particularly appalled when made to wear a disguise to fool the Empire into thinking that the Culture is not as advanced as it actually is.

Despite the way that publishers and some commentators describe Banks' Culture novels as a "series" - which they aren't (in the sense that they lack both an over-arching narrative superstructure and a single genesis) - the fact remains that Banks' Culture novels each increasingly explore different aspects of his utopian society. This book is so different from 'Consider Phlebas' that it established the Culture as one of the more fascinating universes in science fiction.
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LibraryThing member topps
In The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks presents a distant future that could almost be called the end of history. Humanity has filled the galaxy, and thanks to ultra-high technology everyone has everything they want, no one gets sick, and no one dies. It's a playground society of sports, stellar
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cruises, parties, and festivals. Jernau Gurgeh, a famed master game player, is looking for something more and finds it when he's invited to a game tournament at a small alien empire. Abruptly Banks veers into different territory. The Empire of Azad is exotic, sensual, and vibrant. It has space battle cruisers, a glowing court--all the stuff of good old science fiction--which appears old-fashioned in contrast to Gurgeh's home. At first it's a relief, but further exploration reveals the empire to be depraved and terrifically unjust. Its defects are gross exaggerations of our own, yet they indict us all the same. Clearly Banks is interested in the idea of a future where everyone can be mature and happy. Yet it's interesting to note that in order to give us this compelling adventure story, he has to return to a more traditional setting. Thoughtful science fiction readers will appreciate the cultural comparisons, and fans of big ideas and action will also be rewarded
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LibraryThing member antao
“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By
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being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains make-able, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense "perfectly", such as a grid, Prallian scope, 'nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a realistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine-sentience societies.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks

“I… exult when I win. It’s better than love, it’s better than sex or any glanding; it’s the only instant when I feel… real.”

In “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks

Some of the imagery in Bank’s novel concerning gaming strategies closely remind me of my own: “In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially. He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he had been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically … of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.” This means you know you’ll get a biased sort of review. Just so you’re warned.

Back in the day, I eagerly anticipated my game playing binges. The ritual was always the same: I sat down, ready to get in a few minutes of gaming. Hours passed and I’d suddenly become aware that I'd been making ridiculous faces and moving like a contortionist while trying to reach that new high score. Where did the time go? When did I sprain my neck? That happened because I usually reached a critical level of engagement with whatever game I was playing. Often, these types of gaming sessions occurred when I was playing great games. Later, when I went into game design, I always wondered whether it’d be possible to characterize and add design considerations that facilitated these engaged states. The game that got me hooked was Age of Empires (AoE). Before AoE there were a lot of them that I liked to play, but it was AoE that awakened the game geek in me. The culprit was a friend of mine, JohnnyR. At the time, we were both working in a System Administration SAP R/3 ecosystem and the long hours and all-nighters went with the territory. When an all-nighter was in sight we started honing our game skills. While waiting for an Oracle Database reorganizations to finish (or waiting for a huge problem to pop up), we also put in a lot of effort acquiring game time. I was so desperate to play this at home, that I gutted at least 4 PC’s and went foraging around old PC sellers, to custom build a PC that could run the game. It sounds absurd in this day of not-needing-to-build-gaming-PC’s-from-scratch. AoE itself didn’t require a massive PC to play, but at the time there was no such thing as a gaming machines, unless I built one myself. So, I did precisely that, built an extraordinarily powerful gaming PC (for its time) out of bits from other machines (I even got hold of a SCSI disk to give the machine an extra boost). So my first custom built PC was not for a general computing purpose, but for gaming… How did Bank’s book meet my hunger for gaming? I first read this book in 1994, and by that time I hadn’t found AoE yet; that came later. But the time came when the click happened, and that time was 1997. Playing AoE and reading this book made me come to terms with a lot of things. The AoE theoretical meta-game had been nearly perfected even back then, and the random components in game generation did not make a difference to the point of my needing true improvisational play. Later I met a lot of players spending months, if not years, carefully practicing minutely differing iterations of the same game scenarios. I saw professional players end games over early-game mistakes that an intermediate player might not even notice. I considered it a little like chess, in the sense that the meta-game/opening theory was so well explored that the game could rarely be considered improvisational, but was more like a ballet performance: an extremely well-studied routine that had to be executed as perfectly as possible. At the time, I put in a lot of study into the game. The 1997 AoE version had less units than modern games, so every unit was worth more. I remember I could create unlimited number of towers (my favourite strategy was playing tower defense style game-play). There is something almost hypnotic about sitting there late at night with the rest of the household asleep, watching other competitive units moving on the map and manipulating your own to react or to interdict as necessary and to further your own strategic goals. Indeed, many times I woke still in the chair after midnight having dozed off thinking “just one more turn”. It has been a long time since I first read it, and in some ways, this re-read was almost like reading it for the first time. It seemed so fresh, and coming back and savouring it slowly this time around has allowed me to notice how much detailed information it gives us about the nature and practices of the society of the Culture.

SF = Speculative Fiction.
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LibraryThing member baswood
Iain M Banks science fiction novel published in 1988 is the second in his Culture series and while it does develop the themes in the first novel; it’s central plot idea owes something to Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game published a decade earlier. The late 1980s saw the release onto the market of
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the fourth generation of game consoles, computer gaming had been in the reach of many people for the previous fifteen years and its interest among the younger generation saw sales rocketing it was therefore an opportune moment to publish a science fiction novel whose plot featured a game player from the distant future. A game player as hero must have seemed a popular motif.

There is more going on here than gaming, even though the game playing is the structure on which this novel is based. Similar to the first novel in the series (Consider Phlebus) the story takes place in the distant future in our galaxy when a society called the Culture is the dominant force. It is a society of humanoids who have developed machines of artificial intelligence that have created a utopian like existence for the humanoids. It is a society based on socialism, where the idea of ownership is a foreign out-dated concept. In consider Phlebus the hero Bora Horza was a mecenary figure fighting for the Indirans a religious society fighting to wrest control of the galaxy from the Culture, The player of Games takes place some centuries later after the defeat of the Indirans when the Culture have come up against the more primitive Azad Empire. Whereas Bora Horza was critical of the Ai machine (minds) dominance of the society Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is more than content to be part of the Culture. He leads a fairly idyllic existence where he can do and have most things that he wants and leads a life where his interest in game playing has become his chosen profession. Gurgeh becomes interested when Contact the diplomatic/military/government arm of Culture send an emissary to tempt him to play in a special game on the other side of the galaxy. Gurgeh eventually decides to take up the offer and he discovers the Empire of Azad: a dictatorship whose rulers are chosen by how well they play the game of Azad which underpins their society. The empire is everything that the Culture is not, a cruel dictatorship bent on taking over their corner of the galaxy.

Much of the novel is taken up by Gurgeh’s involvement in the game as he succeeds in getting through the preliminary rounds to face tougher and tougher opposition. When not playing he takes the opportunity to see the underside of life in the capital city, where he comes under physical threat, the Azadians are not playing by the rules and the tension in the story is created by following Gurgeh’s perilous path through the games and trying to figure out Culture’s role in it all. The actual games take place on a huge board covered with counters and playing pieces; some of it appears to be based on Risk where players seek to dominate the whole of the playing area, but Banks never explains this in any detail. He is more concerned with describing the players and their reactions. The tension in the story builds to a good climax and Banks paints a credible picture of the world of Azad in contrast to Gurgeh’s artificial world created in the Cultures sphere of influence. Like the first book in the series this story takes place during a certain period of time during the history of the Culture and is self contained in that there are no characters from the previous novel. Once again the story is well written and picks up pace towards the end to provide a thrilling read. Banks does not pull his punches and there are some gruesome goings on, but this did not overly tax my sensitivity and so 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of an unfashionable bit of a random Magellanic Cloud lies a small, unregarded little empire so primitive that its residents still don't have universal health care." Well, not really, but this could have been one way for "Player of Games" to open. The Culture
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that gives the Culture Novels its name can be a difficult thing to pin down, and Banks makes it easier, frankly, by moving the story to a place that hasn't attained its dizzying heights of cybernetic development. It's a nasty, backward place ruled by a ridiculous two-bit monarchy obsessed with symbolism and pomp, which means that it provides a pretty good opportunity for the author to talk about both the meaning of games and to comment on the more ridiculous trappings of earthly power. On the way, we're witness to some rather touching human-drone friendships, some rather smutty stage shows, and some pretty good gameplay, even if the game in question's too hopelessly complex to actually describe. As other reviewers have noted, Banks seemed to have a talent for making procedural paper-shuffling and long trips in space seem fascinating, so there's quite a lot of that here, too, along with a few of the requisite action set-pieces. Gurgeh, our main character, is too much of a chemically augmented gaming professional to seem relatable most of the time. It's the game that takes place on Ea -- and then on a pleasantly bizarre fire planet -- a highly symbolic, ritualized affair that serves as a cover for endless petty infighting and bare-knuckled brutality -- that, unfortunately, seems more familiar to this earthbound reader. The parallels are there to see, of course, but the author -- on purpose, I think -- doesn't really overanalyze and lets the analogy do the talking. Even so, it's a good read.
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LibraryThing member isabelx
When he woke up that afternoon, it was with the memory of defeat. It was some time before he recalled that he had in fact won the Stricken game. Victory had never been so bitter.

The Culture is a very interesting civilisation, in which humans and intelligent machines live as equals. This was the
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first Culture novel that I read, and I have gradually been acquiring the others since then, although I've only read the short stories in "The State of the Art" so far.
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LibraryThing member shibberson
Bizarre and intriguing. Interesting psychological study into the minds of game players. I liked this novel, but some of the games Gurgeh played got a bit repetitive - especially as it was kind of predictable that he would win in the end.
LibraryThing member clong
I've always liked, and been pretty darn good at, games of strategy, probability, tactics, alliance, and the like. So a couple of the basic premises of the book really appealed to me. . . things like the existence of a society where being a player of these kinds of games could be your principal
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occupation (complete with at least a faint echo of the fan adulation and media coverage we give to professional athletes), not to mention the idea of an empire in which the Emperor is selected (and retains his/her/its position) through a massive strategy game tournament.

The protagonist Gurgeh was an interesting character, complicated and not always likable, a many-layered character that was revealed slowly. Banks did a good job of taking the reader along with Gurgeh as he made mistakes, changed opinions, and at times rode an emotional roller coaster. It was fairly easy to see that the drone Mawhrin-Skel was not what it claimed to be, and that rather Gurgeh himself was being manipulated by the powers that be of the Culture for their own agenda.

I also found the Azad society, and how it interacts with the outsider, to be intriguing, if not always believable. The "Fire Planet," the setting on which the final round of the tournament was played, was very cool. So there were a lot of things to like about this, but not everything. The sexual politics issues of the three sex Azad society would have been handled much more effectively by an author like Ursula Le Guin.

I was disappointed in the final scenes, and in particular Nicosar's meltdown. Gurgeh's romantic interest Yay seemed to be a completely superfluous character. And the hidden depravity of the Azad culture seemed needlessly over done and heavy-handed. In the end, the Culture came off more sympathetically in this book than in the others I have read in the series. But The Player of Games left me more confused than ever as to who is running the show.

All in all, quite an enjoyable book, if not really in the same class as Use of Weapons (which to date is by far my favorite Culture book).
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LibraryThing member elahrairah
In which a man and an empire discover that the Culture is not beneath playing rough games. The empire is Azad, a cruel and unusual place held together by a society-philosophy-game of the same name. The man is Gurgeh, a vain and naive savant generally considered the best player of games in the whole
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Culture. Add in some naughty drones and some space opera weirdness and some future communist dreaming and you've got a fine story. Well worth a read.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
The first Culture novel was an impressive introduction, but this second book (700 years later) is when the fun really begins. Gurgeh is a master of strategy games who is becoming bored with it all, until he is recruited for an unusual diplomatic mission. As a science fiction and strategy games fan
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I was "all in" with this premise, and Banks does not waste a single page indulging in it. This really delivers. He is masterful at squeezing the sponge for all its worth, and I laughed often enough over dialogue or situations that I'm going to tag this as humour. Best of all it's entertainment with brains, loaded with cultural, political and social commentary.
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LibraryThing member Nic.DAlessandro
A friend put me onto Ian M. Banks and this is the first of his books I've read. I'm into science fiction on the screen, but not so much in print. So I wasn't sure this book was going to work for me and for the first 1/4 of the book my jury was still out. But something 'unknown' pulled me on, and I
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realise - now that I've finished the book - it was the cleverness of the author.

Banks' command of the English language and his ability to describe imaginary worlds, societies, technologies, games, and beings which do not yet exist, is really quite something. His writing is elegant, yet forceful. Comprehensive, yet also restrained. The book is a treat, even just to enjoy his writing skills.

But the plot and themes were not diminished. I had a feeling, even from the early pages, that this was a game within a game. The actual game play, the plot, the characters, and the two societies are distinct in themselves, yes, but they are also mirrors. It is clear - as the story builds - that a more advanced society is analysing and observing a lesser more barbaric one, and eventually intervening within it. It felt, to me, like the distant future of humanity (maybe thousands of years from now) was looking back at an earlier form of itself (say, hundreds of years from now) with some scorn and trepidation. Perhaps, if the nearer more barbaric society does not get things right - if it does not evolve banal beyond concepts like ownership, money, greed, hedonism, and dominance - then the future advanced society will never come to be. The earlier version will simply destroy itself first.

Is it possible to develop a society which thrives of cooperation rather than dominance, or do the laws of evolution mean we must always compete to allow the strongest to emerge? Can we hold on to the greater good, or is the desire to win and hoard too tempting for us humans? This is the message of the book, I think. This is the mirror it holds up to us. Don't believe me? Read it, and see what you think.

It was entertaining to read of sentient AI and machines, advanced drones, advanced networks, hyperspace travel, morphism of genders, a rise of a more powerful third apex gender .. and much more. Even more amazing when you consider this was written in 1998! Banks has certainly got some predictions right, if recent history is an early indicator of what's in store.

It's very clever how Banks took the lead character along a journey where he was totally played. The game player was gamed. But it's even more incredible that, as the reader, we get played too - but in a delicious, very satisfying way. A true game within a game, within a game.
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LibraryThing member JudithProctor
I read this book as an antidote to 'The Game Players of Titan' and it was much better. Banks's games are never described in enough detail to be able to play them, but the overall feel is of games with depth. eg. An early game in the book is based on the four-colour map problem.

Gurgeh is not a
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totally likeable character, but he is believable, and all the more believable in that he isn't perfect. His Culture is advanced enough to be able to supply all a person's needs, thus, equality is a given. It's hard for him to relate to a world in which people don't have total freedom, but when he encounters such a world the possibilities of power start to intrigue him.

The Empire of Azad is based around success in the game of Azad and Gurgeh - the best games player in the Culture - is 'persuaded' by Contact to go and play Azad.

Contact are a devious bunch, and very good at hiding what they actually intend...

How much of the time is Gurgeh doing what he wants, and how much of the time is he doing what Contact want?

I enjoyed this book (stayed up late to finish it) and it's definitely worth reading more than once.
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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
To be honest while this story was interesting it wasn't engaging for me. It's about games and game playing and politics in a complex world where politics and games are one and the same and the price of failure in a game can mean death or dismemberment.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a member of the Culture
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society, a game play, designer and theoretician he is at first attracted to the concept of the Empire of Azad were the three sexes use gaming as a way of political advancement and where Gurgeh is using all his skills to play, not sure if he wants to go all the way but as the game progresses he finds that he is fighting for his life as well as fighting against a corrupt society.

I liked it and found it interesting but the main character left me cold. Overall I have to rate it as a good but meh book with no real urge to read the other books in the series.
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LibraryThing member Goldengrove
Iain M Banks is the version of his name that Iain Banks uses for his sci-fi novels, and this one is set in the milieu of The Culture - a sophisticated society from the future where crime is almost unknown (it's such a social faux pas to be accompanied everywhere by a sentient drone - no one invites
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you to parties!), and the most intelligent beings are electronic Minds that control vast interstellar vessels.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh - the game player - is bored. But when he takes up the offer to play the ultimate game, a game so engrossing that an entire empire is not only named after it, but ultimately based upon it, he finds his understanding of life and its meaning changed forever. My third reading of this extraordinary book makes me think I'd understood it even less than I thought, but does not change the enormous enjoyment of Banks' imaginative and descriptive powers. In fact, 'descriptive' is almost an insult - he displays to the nth degree that essential skill of the writer: to show, not to tell. Whether Gurgeh is safely on his home Orbital, or outwitting the game playing colleges of Ea, the reader is there alongside him. It's sort of book that lodges inside and changes the outlook. I will definitely be reading it a fourth time.
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LibraryThing member RBeffa
An excellent almost outstanding novel, second in Banks series of Culture novels. Some novels grab you; this one grabbed me. I liked this much better than "Consider Phlebas". It is very well written. I'm not sure the WOW factor is as strong here, unless this is the first Culture novel one is
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reading. The characters are so much better drawn. We get a much better idea of what the Culture is like. The descriptions are so well done it was like I was watching a movie inside my head. The first novel now seems like almost a glimpse. I love the names of ships, I love the AI's, snarky and otherwise. I love the whole idea of the games being played here. On the downside, despite being well written, the story did seem too drawn out in places and momentum suffered. Also, as a personal thing, when idiomatic speech is used in a story like this, it is guaranteed to throw me out of the bubble. It may be cute, but having an AI open a conversation with "Hows Tricks?" ...
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LibraryThing member geertwissink
Very entertaining - finished the book in a couple of evenings, the book has a quick pace, finding myself staying up too late after being totally absorbed by the story. Negatives: the main character is quite dull and there's a very irritating voice-over at some points in the story and at the end.
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But these are only minor disruptions in a great story.
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LibraryThing member closedmouth
The narrative is good, but I felt disconnected from the main idea, that of the games. Banks takes on an impossible task in describing "the most complex game in the universe", so much of the action is a variation on the phrase "X made his move and it was a good/bad one". He also takes a lot of
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shortcuts with the overly humanoid aliens which I never quite managed to swallow. I'm also not into board games in the slightest, so even the idea of it was kinda dull, and the denouement is pretty OTT. It's well-written for the most part, but I guess it's not really my book, unfortunately.
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Original publication date

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