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The Player of Games [Paperback]

Iain Banks
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 10 1989
BANKS/PLAYER OF GAMES

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Product Description

From Library Journal

The Culture's greatest game player travels to the Empire of Azad to participate in a complex competition that could settle the fates of two civilizations. Theauthor of Consider Phlebas vividlyportrays an empire ruled by arcane conventions and sophisticated brutality in an ambitious novel of gamesmanship and intrigue. Supple prose and subtle manipulations of plot produce a thought-provoking story which is highly recommended.-- JC
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Few of us have been exposed to a talent so manifest and of such extraordinary breadth.' -- The New York Review of Science Fiction

'Poetic, humorous, baffling, terrifying, sexy – the books of Iain M. Banks are all these things and more.' -- NME

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Paperback
The Player of Games is the second of Iain M Banks' Culture novels, and has nothing to do with the previous book, Consider Phlebas.

Jernau Gurgeh, a game theorist and the Culture's best game-player, is recruited by the Culture's Contact division to travel to the far-off Empire of Azad in the Small Magellanic Cloud. The entire political system of the Empire is based around a complicated board game, also called Azad: ranks in the military and government, for instance, are won by advancing in Azad tournaments, with the title of Emperor going to the ultimate victor. Gurgeh, of course, is invited to join an upcoming tournament as an honoured guest, rather than compete for any prize.

After arriving on the Azad homeworld after a few years of travel and study of the game, Gurgeh surprises his hosts with his unique, alien style of play and his steady advancement through the tournament ladder. This makes up most of the novel, with some detours into the Empire's growing unease of Gurgeh's success and the hidden brutality the it uses to suppress its population.

On a larger scale, it seems that The Player of Games is Banks' attempt to introduce the Culture and its philosophies (beyond what we saw in Consider Phlebas) by contrasting them against those of the Empire. While the Empire is violently repressive, militaristic, and strongly divided by class (to the point of supporting slavery), the Culture is a post-scarcity society with little crime and no formal laws, equality for numerous sentient species and AIs, and a much more peaceful foreign policy. Of course, we don't see much of the Culture directly—utopia doesn't make for interesting plot—but Gurgeh's reactions to the increasingly horrific Empire give an excellent view into the mind of a Culture individual.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I really liked The Player of Games Sept. 6 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm trying to read the Iain M Banks canon in chronological order (publication date). I really liked The Player of Games. His portrayal of the alien Empire of Azad was fascinating, and the story was pretty gripping. I love the way he writes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Player of Games March 24 2008
Format:Paperback
Best Sci Fi I have read in a long time. An engaiging storyline, with characters of interest and a reflection of human history. Recommended.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars pretty good June 10 2011
Format:Paperback
I thought the plot and characters were engaging though the story-line drags a little at some point. Furthermore, the scenes where they were playing a Game were a little dull since the Game itself is fictional and complex and we can only rely on a brief description of the process and rules of it to conjure up an image.

If you're looking for good sci-fi by Iain M. Banks, try 'Consider Phlebas' or 'Excession'.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  207 reviews
98 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's just a game Nov. 9 2000
By Michael Battaglia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I believe this was the second Culture novel (Banks' future history series, for those unfortunates who haven't read this series yet) and about as far from Consider Pheblas as can be. While that book was a grand space opera, taking place right in the middle of a war, featuring a lead character fighting against the culture, this novel is a lot more scaled down. But it's probably better than Consider Pheblas, if only because the mood isn't so downbeat, Banks can be morbidly witty most times but sometimes he goes too far and becomes downright depressing. So, here we have Guergh, probably the greatest game player in the Culture . . . he finds that games really don't hold any excitement for him anymore, and everything in the Culture easy to get (even sex changes!), there's no challenge elsewhere either. Until Contact invites him to go on a mission to a civilization based completely about games. He goes for it and winds up on a place so different from the Culture it might as well be barbaric. From there plots and counterplots start spinning, though this book is delightfully straightforward for the most part, but things are spinning around so fast that you can barely keep your breath. He gets the details right on everything and manages to generate excitement from the series of games that Guergh has to play without going into lengthy details of the rules. The climax is about as surprising as they come, as Guergh gets farther in the games and the stakes get higher as the civilization tries to stop this "outworlder" from making them look like a bunch of idiots. Probably the first SF book you should pick from Banks, both for its relative simplicity (compared to the others) and general lightheartedness. It's not all fun and games but the mood is generally witty and swift. One of those few books you really can't go wrong with if you want a good read.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than One Player July 19 2006
By James D. DeWitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Culture is a galaxy-wide civilization, so far advanced that it has solved most problems that afflict humanity. The great concerns of our time are all resolved. No longer planet-bound, no longer concerned with meeting needs; the Culture is a utopian, decadent paradise. A mix of wildly evolved humans and super-intelligent machines, including intelligent spaceships, it is very nearly all-powerful and omniscient.

But there are still parts of the galaxy, or at least parts of the Magellanic Clouds, where the Culture has not yet gained influence. Those parts of the Galaxy are the business of Contact, the part of the very loose government of the Culture that deals with alien civilizations. And in the difficult cases, Special Circumstances steps in to solve the problem. "Special Circumstances," like most names in Banks' books, is a euphemism: "Special Circumstances" isn't bound by the legal, moral or cultural constraints that bind the rest of the Culture.

Gurgeh, the protagonist, is recruited, perhaps blackmailed, by Special Circumstances to help Contact with an awkwardly difficult alien culture. The Azadians present a space-faring civilization, less advanced than the Culture but still powerful, whose entire ethos is based on The Game. Social position, military rank, governmental power, wealth; all of Azad is based on one's performance in The Game. Gurgeh is one of the Culture's best games players. Special Circumstances sends Gurgeh to Azad to compete in The Game.

At one level, Banks is writing about the effect of an advanced culture on a less advanced one. At another, he is having fun with a traditional space opera culture that is in contact with his more subtle and sophisticated one. At another, he is poking fun at traditional SF authors. Because as the story progresses, the underbelly of Azad is revealed to be disgusting and horrific; in some ways, the Culture's efforts to undermine Azad are morally justified.

But most of what Contact tells Gurgeh is a lie. He himself is an unknowing pawn in another game. When is it right to cheat? What is cheating? As ever, Banks asks the questions but doesn't really answer them, making you ask yourself instead, "Am I asking the right question?"

Banks' Culture is ironic and self-mocking. The intelligent ship that takes Gurgeh to Azad is the size of an asteroid but calls itself "Little Rascal." The equally vast ship that takes him back is named "So Much for Subtlety." But the Culture is deadly, too, as evidenced in _Consider Phlebas_, set a few hundred years earlier than _Player of Games_. The Culture is peaceful and principled; that doesn't mean non-violent or honest.

This is a very good book by a very good author. Banks never tells the same story twice, and in _Player of Games_ he sets a new benchmark for intelligent science fiction. Highly recommended.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Near Perfect Book Jan. 14 2004
By J. Fuchs - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I say "near perfect" because as those who've read a lot of Ian Banks know, Banks is somewhat obsessed with cruelty and torture and this book has its fair share. At least here, however, it forms a logical and integral part of the book unlike Banks' Consider Phlebas, where it's so gratuitous and specific that it's really disturbing, and it doesn't form a huge part of the book like it does in The Wasp Factory, which I couldn't finish because of it.
The above aside, the story is compelling, the writing superb, and the author's premise intelligent without being condescending or dense. Banks has created a version of Utopia, called the Culture, and thought it through quite well. Ownership and status have been eliminated, there's plenty of space, there's equality (even sentient machines share the same status as humans), people can internally create whatever drugs/state of mind they need/want and even select their gender, and people are happy and engaged. So when Jernau Gergeh, a professional game player, is recruited to play the game of Azad in the far-distant empire of Azad, he is reluctant to leave his home for the five years the game will take. But Gurgeh does leave, and Azad turns out to be a civilization much more like our own than that of the Culture. Azad is hierarchical, crowded and violent, and status is everything.
One of the interesting things that Banks has done is to make us recognize ourselves in the empire of Azad, while still finding ways to make the Azadians different than the alien races one so often finds in mediocre science fiction writing. For one thing, the Azadians have three genders. Banks also focuses on the difference between the languages of the Culture and the empire, and how language may shape thought. Banks makes us understand why Gurgeh becomes attracted to the empire even with all its flaws, inequalities and cruelty, and to the game of Azad, a brilliantly created giant of a game which is central to the civilization of Azad and all its institutions, and which represents the entire philosophy of the empire.
You might not think that a book about a game and game-playing would be consistently compelling, but in Bank's capable hands it is. A study of competition, cultural differences, politics and human nature, it stays captivating throughout, managing to combine a good story and excellent story telling with thought- provoking premises. This was the first book by Banks I ever read and easily my favorite still. I've read it at least half a dozen times and it holds up on every re-reading.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Checkmate. Mr Banks wins. March 16 2001
By Keith Fraser - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I've read this book more times than I can remember(always a good sign). There are two main reasons why I like it so much, I believe. First of all, I am an avid player of board and strategy games like the ones in the book myself (though sadly not as proficient as Gurgeh!). Secondly, I identify with the hero a lot as he has several of my own personality traits - naivete, curiosity, a solitary nature.
The story is first-class (better than the other Culture novels I've read, Consider Phlebas and Excession). Gurgeh is an excellent, very human character and his behaviour (letting himself slip and getting blackmailed, his fascination with the Empire of Azad when he reaches it) is both realistic and easy to sympathise with.
I suspect the Empire is a sort of exaggerated satire of our own society, though I'm not 100% certain (Banks must take a fairly gloomy view of life today if it's meant only as a caricature rather than a warning of what happens when greed becomes the only driving force in a culture).
And, of course, Banks creates his universe wonderfully. The contrasts between the Culture and the Empire are not too blatantly portrayed, and all the settings are well described. The various games are my favourite aspect of the setting, including one played in a 3-D web, ones that require the use of four or more dimensions, and of course Azad, the game that the Empire sees as the perfect model of life itself and uses as its foundation (the grand tournament held every seven years determines who holds positions of power and what ideas are predominant in the Empire until the next one, the overall champion becoming Emperor). If there is one criticism I make of this book, it's that there's not enough detail of how the game works! This is a fairly personal thing though - what matters is that the game is insanely complex and intricate.
I won't give away the plot as it will make things less tense for the reader, but suffice to say that it becomes grimmer and darker as it progresses towards the exciting and shocking climax.
Oh, and one last thing - don't stop paying attention when it looks like everything's more or less over. There is one last very surprising twist at the end which I didn't see coming at all.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Culture starts here Jan. 31 2009
By Adman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Player of Games is by far the best Culture story. It is the Culture book that will make one read all 7 Culture books and wait eagerly for 7 more and then 7 more. Of course, Banks' readers and Culture lovers are not waiting for my Amazon review to point out the obvious, the obvious being that the imagination of Banks equals to the imagination of around 100.000 Amazon reviewers (including all the top 1000). However, for BF beginners, BF standing for Banks Fiction as opposed to what other writers produce and label Science Fiction, this is the novel to start.
Player of Games has 3 very distinctive qualities, that should have given it the 1998 Hugo, Nebula, and all the rest SF awards, that have never been awarded to Banks, thanks to Banks' peers envy. I really hope one day the guy gets a Nobel for his non SF literature and make all his peers sign for cryonics way before their biological termination.

Quality no 1: Human pride. When was the last time you felt in control, superior, even snobbish, regarding Mankind's status in space operas? Bear is bleak, McLeod is meek, Vinge is weak, but Banks' Culture? It fills you with singular pride for being a human and collective pride for what humans may someday become.

Quality no 2: A hero you can associate with. Unlike other Culture novels, where the main characters are too bad, too strong, too artificial, too beautiful, too medieval, too exotic or too intelligent, Gurgeh is almost one of us. Why, in the beginning of the novel, manipulated by a drone, he even falls for the most ancient trick of all times. Gurgeh's got passions, moments of doubt and moments of brilliance. He may not be the archetypic Culture specimen, but he's a hell lot of fun.

Quality no 3: The ending. Banks is a master of endings, as all Culture novels have that special last twinkle in the eye, but Player of Games is the most satisfying of all. Very soon after you 've finished the book, you 'll find yourself reread ready.

From the approximately 200 billion stars in the Galaxy, take out 5 and give them deservedly to Player of Games.
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