Joe's Reviews > The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
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May 05, 2012

liked it

In this sci-fi novel, a civilization known as the Culture possesses almost godlike technological power -- ability to create sentient ships, implantable glands that allow people to reform their bodies in any way, and so on. People lead lives of leisure: instead of working for money, they are able to dedicate their lives to playing strategy games for the challenge, or to build their reputation.

One of the top players in this civilization receives an invitation from powerful members in the Culture: they have made contact with a distant planet and would like him to visit it. The planet's entire structure is based around a game called Azad: it's a metaphor for life on the planet as a whole, and actual government structure is affected by a periodic planet-wide tournament. The protagonist in this novel can travel to this planet -- so distant that it will take two years to travel there -- and play in the tournament.

At nearly the same time, he finds himself being blackmailed. He has foolishly decided to cheat in a game -- a rather meaningless game, where he already had a win guaranteed, and only hoped to gain a particularly dramatic sort of victory. He agrees to take the trip, requiring one condition from the Culture that will serve to discharge the request made of him by the blackmailer.

At first, his results in the Azad tournament are tentative; over time, his understanding of the planet, and the game of Azad, allows him to play reasonably well. As he progresses in the tournament, he finds that other players are no longer ganging up against him, but instead mainly ignoring him to focus on their own local rivalries. He continues to progress, overcoming amazing odds, cheating, and various roadblocks in his way.

This book was pretty compelling, but there were a few basic things that bothered me -- bothered me to a degree that I just couldn't ignore them. First of all, the book says that blackmailing is virtually unknown, since any sort of "evidence" -- compromising photographs, embarrassing video, whatever -- could be faked, and so isn't generally trusted. But, the player is successfully blackmailed by having real-time video of his actions streamed to someone else. It just doesn't make sense: either blackmailing is relatively simple and would occur on a regular basis, or it's rare to the point of being unknown because it really is difficult to do.

Secondly, the planet where Azad is played seems sort of ridiculous. I can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that the society uses a game as a metaphor for its basic structure, but the individual actions of people in that society seem too black-and-white, to a point that just seemed silly to me.

Finally, the entire story is predicated on the Culture being able to predict people's actions over an incredibly long and tortuous series of events. Either they are basically magic, in which case they wouldn't really need to rely on the actions on individuals to accomplish their goals, or the basic premise of the book is bogus.

These flaws were annoying, but they're not fatal. Overall, the book itself is still enjoyable.
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