Monday, September 16, 2013

"The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

(cover image from

Tragically, Iain M. Banks died this summer, age 59. I'd never read anything by him, but he was regularly recommended to me. In particular, since I'm such a fan of computer games, The Player of Games (1988) was often recommended. So I finally decided I needed to read it.

This book is part of his Culture series, where a highly advanced, galaxy-spanning civilization of humans (primarily) and intelligent AI live in a virtual utopia. There are no laws, no crime, no money, and no need to work. Vast 'Minds' run things for the benefit of all.

Gurgeh is a renowned game-player, and the book opens with him playing something like an advanced (though not very advanced) first-person shooter. The first couple of pages made it seem like this would be the perfect book for me, but that was quite misleading. As it turned out, Gurgeh - the protagonist in the book - hated games like that and never played another.

He was a "game-player," true, but his interest was in games more like chess. I have no interest in games like that, so the fact that I'm also a game-player is simply immaterial here. (Really, we're talking apples and oranges.) Indeed, I was hugely disappointed when this became clear, about page five.

I didn't like the main character much - not at first, certainly - and none of the other characters were especially appealing, either. They were interesting, yes, but I didn't really care what happened to any of them. And I found the first 150 pages of the book to be very slow - fairly interesting, but no more than that.

Things did pick up after that. Gurgeh starts out rather bored with life (and that doesn't make him any more likable). But then he gets blackmailed into traveling clear across the galaxy to visit an alien empire which is based entirely on a very complicated game. Once he got there, the book became much more interesting.

Gurgeh is to play the game himself, but he's not really sure why he's there. Their society is not at all admirable, and it's quite a shock to him. But the whole point to his journey is unclear until the very end.

Frankly, I found that part of it very hard to believe. The basic idea just didn't make much sense to me. (I don't want to give away any spoilers here, so I won't say more than that.) But the latter part of the book was still quite entertaining. I'm glad I read it,... but I can't say I'm eager to read more in the series.

Author Tony Williams, a friend of mine, just wrote a review of Matter, another in Banks' Culture series, and that book sounds very similar to this one. Oh, the setting is different and the plot is different, but the style sounds very similar (including the slow start).

I don't think that style particularly appeals to me, not these days. I don't have as much patience as I used to, and I really want characters I care about. I can definitely understand the popularity of Iain M. Banks, but I probably won't be reading more in this series.

Obviously, this is all a matter of personal taste, and I'm not denying that there's a lot to like in The Player of Games. I suspect that I might have loved it, years ago. I've changed since then, and I don't think it's been for the better. But, either way, I'm glad I read the book. I'm just not motivated to read more in this series.

PS. The rest of my book reviews are here.

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