“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.”
– Opening of The Player of Games
In the Culture, humanoids of all different planets have created a society where the needs of all are met, the rights of all are respected, and the only troubles come from beyond its borders. Biological life forms live in peace with drones and spaceships that are considered equals. Jernau Morat Gurgeh, having no need to work for anything besides his own pleasure, spends his time studying and playing games. Well respected as a competitor and well-renowned as the author of many papers, he gladly accepts the opportunity to play one of his best games against a young prodigy who’s just arrived on the orbital where he lives. But as the game goes on, he falls into temptation, wanting not just to defeat her but to defeat her in a way no human has ever defeated another in that game before. A socially outcast drone offers its assistance, but he learns too late that it comes at a price. The drone wants to get back into Contact, the foreign intelligence organization it was kicked out of, and Contact wants Gurgeh. Soon, the game-player finds himself flying to an alien empire whose entire civilization is structured around the most complicated game he’s ever known. An empire where a sex known as apex dominates both male and female, poverty is rampant, and the government has an appetite for conquest and cruelty. Contact wants to take it down, and for some reason, it seems to think that Gurgeh is the key.
This is the second book in Iain Banks’ Culture series, the first of which is Consider Phlebas. I mentioned in my review of that book that I wasn’t sure if reading that one was necessary in order to read this one, and indeed I found that this book has entirely different characters and a brand-new storyline. The connecting factor is the world itself, which means it isn’t strictly necessary to read the first before the second. Having done so, however, I found that I had a head start understanding many of the world-building aspects, and I also started out with a healthy dose of suspicion for Contact and the machines that seem to run it. I think I would have had a different experience of reading this book without those preconceived ideas, and, while it’s difficult to say whether I would have enjoyed it more or less for gaining my first impressions here and being surprised by certain things, I do think I’m glad that I read both in their proper order in the end.
This one is quite different from the first, with the main character coming from within the Culture rather than outside of it. Whereas the main character of the first book was a Changer and had awesome physical abilities because of that, this main character has physical abilities that suit him in a different way. The primary one he uses is the ability to use special glands to create brain-altering drugs that do things like boost his concentration or allow him to bypass the effects of alcohol. Notably for this story, he would also be able to change sex if he wanted to, a fact that has to be kept secret from the inhabitants of the empire whose entire social order would fall apart if males and females could become apexes at will.
I loved the contrast between the empire and the Culture, as well as the way the book is structured to invite the reader to compare both to our own society. There are obvious parallels between our world and the empire, and the existence of the apexes provides a great avenue for criticizing sexism while showing what it might hypothetically be like if both men and women were considered lesser. At the same time, however, the empire as a whole seems far nastier than our world as a whole, and I thought certain aspects of the Culture reflect some of the best parts of our world, or at least some of the things that we aspire to. Knowing that this book was written in the late 80’s, it was also fascinating to consider the ways our world has changed since then, some of which are shown in the Culture. An easy example of this would be Gurgeh’s acceptance of all types of sexuality. It was also interesting to see the depiction of sex changes, although these seemed to be done on a whim or for the purpose of wanting to procreate in a certain way rather than being connected to transgender characters.
I also liked the balance of this book, starting with a long opening section that gives us a chance to get to know the main character and the Culture and develop a sense of what this “native” environment is like before Gurgeh adapts to and is changed by the empire. There’s also the fact that information is kept from the reader at the beginning and slowly fed throughout, in a manner that echoes Contact keeping information from Gurgeh. There’s a very subtle feeling that he’s being manipulated throughout, but that also is balanced by the fact that the machines doing the manipulating seem to genuinely care about his happiness and wellbeing. Or at least they’re so willing to pretend they do that they will pull him out if he asks them to. This allows Gurgeh to still be the protagonist, the one driving the action, and the reader never gets the sense that accomplishing the mission is a foregone conclusion. In fact, it’s unclear until the very end exactly what “accomplishing the mission” would even look like. It’s a very well-structured plot that keeps you thinking and keeps you guessing without confusing or overwhelming you.
I must note, though, that there definitely are some portions that are quite disturbing. It becomes clear at a certain point that there are some things the author considers too much to be shown explicitly, therefore only hinting at them, but there certainly deserves to be a content warning for sexual violence, mutilation, torture, child abuse, and animal cruelty. There were even some parts that horrified me in a way that doesn’t easily fall under any of the standard content warnings. This book sets out to really make you feel how awful the empire and its people are. For me, I think it was earned because it really makes you understand why Contact is doing this and how learning of all these horrors impacts and drives Gurgeh, as well as making you reflect on some bigger questions about what it might be justified for a civilization like the Culture to do in order to protect themselves from being conquered or at least attacked by such people, but it might be best to be prepared for that going in.
As in the last book, there is no group that’s represented as perfectly angelic, and this book makes one question whether it’s even possible for a civilization to be perfectly angelic and still survive. And if it falls because it failed to let go of those perfect standards, rather than making small compromises in order to preserve as much good as possible, was it even perfect? Is perfection even possible? This book seems to take the stance that there will always be some darkness, so don’t go in expecting the Culture to be a utopia that never gets its hands dirty.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who can handle its content and is fascinated by the concept. As I said above, the book is well-written and well-executed. It’s also an interesting study in a first-person narrator who spends most of the book telling the story in the omniscient style and occasionally pops in to break the fourth wall. It’s a great representation of this type of sci fi novel, and I hope that you enjoy it, whether you want to try it on its own or in combination with Consider Phlebas.
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