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Sunday, July 11, 2010

cover of 'The Player of Games'

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is one of the best game players in The Culture, a space-faring society of advanced "genofixed" humans and artificially intelligent machines - he is such a gamer that he has taken the name "Morat", meaning game-player or player of games. But he's a little bit bored with his life-- nothing is that challenging or engaging anymore-- and his old family friend, the drone Chamlis Amalk-ney, offers to ask Contact to see if there might be something interesting he could do. When they do come up with an offer, it involves considerable travel, and Gurgeh is rather a home-body, preferring not to leave his home orbital, so he turns them down. However, not long after, he is manipulated by the rogue drone Mawhrin-Skel (who was intended for the Special Circumstances branch of Contact but then deemed unfit), and he is black-mailed and maneuvered into accepting the offered task that Contact had suggested, which involves traveling to a remote civilization where their society is obsessed with and run by a complicated strategy game called Azad.

Gurgeh spends the long space trip to the Empire of Azad learning the game and playing against the ship mind. He is joined, and accompanied planet-side, by a small librarian-type drone who will assist him with moving in their society without appearing antagonistic. This Empire is a large, space-faring society that the Culture would consider barbaric and inhumane, but the leaders of the Empire refuse to tell their people much about the Culture because they wish to remain separate (a bit of a military detente, in fact, as the Empire is large enough to be somewhat of a threat to the Culture, and the Culture wishes not to have to kill and destroy so many of the people of the Empire, many of whom are disadvantaged by the current regime).

Gurgeh arrives just in time to participate in the great tournament of Azad that is used to determine who will be the next Emperor. As he begins to play, he also is exposed to some of the seedy under side of this society, and sees the repression of the lesser genders (there are three) when he meets an intelligent woman who will compete in the games and wishes him well. As he progresses through the rounds of the games, he recognizes that he is a pawn in the hands of Contact that is playing a much larger game, and he glimpses some of the political unrest that is caused by his successes in the game, but as he is drawn more and more into the game, he becomes more and more oblivious to everything else. There is one particularly compelling moment after a game where Gurgeh is walking between the game facility and his transportation, and he is still thinking in terms of the game, so he sees the cluster of people as enemy tokens and realizes one of his tokens-- himself-- is in danger moments before an assassination attempt takes place.

Gurgeh continues to win his way through the rounds, and qualifies for the final set of games on the fire planet, Echronedal-- although officially he has lost at this point, as reported by the state-controlled media, he does not care as he only wishes to continue playing and winning. He wins the respect of some his opponents and destroys the lives of others (one official makes a body-mutilation wager on the outcome, an old Azadian tradition, no doubt at the urging of officials hoping to pressure Gurgeh to quit). As things progress, his companion drone is worried that Gurgeh is regressing and becoming more like the barbaric culture he's been immersed in, with it's aggressive game of Azad, and without the enlightening influence of speaking Marain, the language of the Culture. At the end, Gurgeh faces the Emperor in the final match, and it is a long, epic game that consumes all of Gurgeh's thinking and days, and finally Gurgeh recognizes that he and the Emperor are playing with the strategies of their respective societies: attacking, controlling, assimilating in the same way that the Empire and the Culture might. It is after this game, when everything falls apart and violence ensues, that Gurgeh understands a bit of his role as a pawn in the hands of Special Circumstances-- destroying this society at its core by beating them at their own game, which they have used to control and run their Empire for centuries. It is at this point that we see a glimpse of what Gurgeh's companion drone has hinted at a couple of times in the book, when Gurgeh comments about how mean and nasty the Empire is-- that the Culture is actually much meaner, in some ways.

An intense, thought-provoking book. I look forward to reading more Iain Banks novels when I have the energy and time to concentrate on them.

Title:The Player of Games
Author:Iain M. Banks
Date published:1988
Genre:Science Fiction
Series:a Culture novel
Number of pages:395
Notes:recommended by Pete


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