The Player of Games • 1988 • Space Opera novel by Iain M. Banks


Rating: 4 out of 5.

First Sentence: 

This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player called “Gurgeh”. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game.
Me? I’ll tell you about me later.

Seriously, the author loves to play games with the reader 🙂

Synopsis: The story follows Culture citizen Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a famous player of board games. He’s bored with his life on his home Orbital, and just parties around with his human and drone friends. 

One of his drone friends, Mawhrin-Skel, manages to blackmail Gurgeh into accepting an offer from Culture’s secrect police called “Special Circumstances (SC)”. They want him to participate in a very complex game called “Azad”.

This game isn’t played in the political sphere of the Culture, but in a far-away Empire of Azad, located in the Small Magellanic Cloud. The game Azad is the basis for the Empire, players win political status and social ranks through it, and the Emperor himself is the one player winning the game. The players define their philosophy and political targets by playing it.

Now, SC has kept contact to the Empire secret for some 70 years, but they see now the chance to introduce one of their citizens as a player in the tournament which will once again find the next Emperor.  

Gurgeh learns to play the game on his two years journey to the Empire’s home planet Eä. He’s accompanied only by one diplomatic drone Flere-Imsaho.

Gurgeh more or less flies through the qualifications which is already a shock for the Empire. They thought that he would loose his first match already. Along the way, Gurgeh learns about the highly oppressive nature of the Empire, and several other dark and cruel aspects like snuff channels for the high society, life torturing of prisoners and similar atrocities.

He’s matched against ever more capable and important opponents, and there are attempts on his life and other blackmailing actions. Nevertheless, he participates in the final rounds on a different planet Echronedal, the “Fire Planet” which has an everlasting firewall going around the planet’s circular continent. 

Review: Just recently, I’ve read the first Culture novel from Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (review), and I really liked it. It’s very similar with Player of Games, not because it’s the same thing in different colours, but because it’s very different.

First of all, it feels more like an extended novella than a typical representative of the Space Opera subgenre. Compare it’s 300 pages to some other huge doorstoppers (looking at you, Mr Reynolds!), and you know what I mean.

Throughout the whole novel, I couldn’t identify with the one defining core element of the narration: the game Azad, which is an extrapolation of chess. I simply don’t believe that future games, culture-defining games would be board games. Of course, Banks hadn’t got any The Last of Us, World of Warcraft, or similar video games at the time of writing. But still, there were team-oriented role playing games around, and in the one case where Gurgeh participated in one of the first person shooter simulations, he disregarded them as uninteresting. Also, the “facing opponents” part works out very differently in our COVID-19 world. Even the pen&paper RPGs happen remotely these days. In those regards, the novel doesn’t feel fresh or relevant, it’s got a nostalgic touch. Which I liked, mind you, and I was easily able to ignore my second thoughts about them during the reading experience.  

The novel once again focuses on a single protagonist in tight third person. It doesn’t have sidekick protagonists to speak of. Yes, there are the friends of Gurgeh, especially several named drones exposing interesting personalities, but none of them steal Gurgeh’s show. Mind you, they aren’t pale or uninteresting, quite the contrary, but still, they don’t take much screen-time to be noteworthy. It’s really a one-man show. 

I can already hear the outcry “oh, that’s soooo last millenium to have an entitled white man dominating the show”. Well, it isn’t, because Gurgeh is a PoC, which causes him a lot of resentment from the racist Azad people. And also, all those Culture people constantly change their gender on a whim. I guess, everyone of the Culture is a transgender. Which, again, is considered highly offensive at the homophobic Azad.

Banks makes a decided statement about sexuality in this novel – I didn’t like that one too much, because it was too heavy-handed for my taste, and too obvious, too easy.

This is already one of the core features of this novel, differentiating it from others:

  • It’s clearly structured with chapters orienting on the tournament just like a sports story.
  • It doesn’t have multiple points of view (with some very minor exceptions)
  • It doesn’t jump around in time (contrasting for example Use of Weapons, the third in the series)
  • It has a single main protagonist Gurgeh who isn’t highly relatable but very interesting to read about
  • It has several very clear philosophical statements about racism, sexism, torture, and free will. 

For my taste, it’s lacking a certain finesse and is clearly dedicated for ease of accessibility to a broader reading public. 

I really like the unobstructed flow through the novel, and could easily rush through it, just like the first Culture novel. That is a quality I often call “unputdownable” which hit me in only three reading sessions.  

As a side-note, the mysterious figure from the “first sentence” was very easily identifiable, as was the general plot line and the question “what would Culture’s AIs achieve with involving Gurgeh”. 

In summary, I loved how Banks made a statement how he write a very easy novel which doesn’t lack statements about our own society. It’s not a masterpiece but solid craft and well worth your reading time. Highly recommended!

Meta: GoodReads.  

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15 Responses to The Player of Games • 1988 • Space Opera novel by Iain M. Banks

  1. bormgans says:

    I think you are right in that this was meant as an easy read, a gateway in the Culture so you wish. I always recommend it as the first one to try. Interesting remark on the boardgames, but I think you’ll see later that about anything exists within the Culture, so to me it was very believable that some people would still play boardgames, have a league, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    I figured 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Player of Games is often recommended as a good “entry level” book for Banks and your comment about easy accessibility confirms that the recommendation is spot-on: while I was a bit confused with my first attempt through Consider Phlebas, Player of Games showed me that there was a good reading potential in Banks, and it opened the way for me toward his other novels. And now I can give Phlebas another chance…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      That sounds already desperate, haha, „give him one last chance“ 🤣
      It’s vice versa for me: if I‘d have read Player of Games as an entry to Banks, I‘d have said „yet another straightforward Space Opera writer“ and probably wouldn’t have looked further, because there are so many writing at this level. I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant when I say that I need more literary techniques to win me over.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I echo what the others said that this is a nice entry point for the Culture novels. I liked this one but I wasn’t blown away by it. It fleshes out a bit better what daily life is like in the Culture, as opposed to Consider Phlebas which is hardly set in the Culture at all. Also, isn’t this the first novel with a cheeky drone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      PoG has nearly as much Culture setting as CP – PoG for the first quarter of the novel on one Orbital and in transit; CP in the middle on an Orbital (remember the megaship heist and the cannibals?). But I see where you came to the conclusion, because CP hides the Culture setting, whereas PoG starts with a cozy Orbital setting, including all those gender swapping folks and the highly individual drones.
      Concerning drones, they feel very much just like another human sidekick, they are not very “mechanical”.
      As of “first novel with a cheeky drone”, I bet that there were several in the Golden Years, maybe Asimov had one or two?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, yeah, I’m sure that Asimov wrote about cheeky drones. I meant in the Culture series itself. It has been many years, at least a decade since I read these books so I don’t remember them perfectly. From CP I remember Horza flying through a GSV but I don’t remember the Orbital.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Andreas says:

          That Orbital was Vavatch which they destroyed as a pawn sacrifice (imagine, evacuating billions of people and destroying a gigantic Orbital). And if you don’t remember that hillarious/horrific scene with the religious apocalyptic cannibals, you really should reread that part 🙂
          As for other drones, there were only two before PoG that I remember, and both were only kind of funny: the first one is an intelligent handgun in “A Gift from the Culture” with the intelligence of a dog or something, which is cute but not really funny. The other one is a robot who got trapped on Horza’s spaceship and constantly wanted to escape. I found that hilarious, but the robot wasn’t cheeky.
          So, yes, PoG has the first Culture cheeky drones 🙂


  5. piotrek says:

    Yes, I agree with your opinion of the book. Banks is a solid craftsman, and as much as I adore his world, and his ideas, the writing itself is mostly just very good & quite accessible. But it’s still my official preferred version of humanity’s future 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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