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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Player of Games (1988) by Iain M. Banks

Cover art from the 1988 Culture novel, The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks.
Book Review
The Player of Games (1988)
 by Iain M. Banks

  Scottish author Iain Banks wrote non-genre fiction without his middle initial.  For his genre work, mostly science-fiction/fantasy, he went by Iain M. Banks, as is the case for The Player of Games, his second book in his sequence of titles about "The Culture" a far-future, post-scarcity civilization of humans, humanoids and sentient artificial intelligence (mostly represented by Droids and intelligent space ships in this volume) who... well it's not exactly sure what the Culture are actually up to, since their money-free, law-free anarchistic society doesn't appear to have any formal or informal goals, but they seem to be a force for what one might call "good."

 Banks doesn't go in for a lot of exposition- a major point among works of genre fiction that got included in the first version of the 1001 Books list (The Player of Games was cut in 2008.)  Jurneau Gurgah is the game player in question.  He lives on some kind of floating asteroid designed to look like a Nordic fjord-scape.  He travels the galaxy playing games as a representative of The Culture, but at the start of the book he is in full recluse mode.  The games that he plays appear to be board games.  I was a tad surprised that it was the humble board game which extends to all galaxies and civilizations, but there you have it.

  In The Player of Games, Gurgah is recruited, under highly mysterious circumstances, to travel to the Azad Empire and take part in their civilization defining game (called Azad- the Empire being named after the game.)  It's the kind of game where winning means you get to be the Emperor, and the Azadis take it very seriously.  Compared to the Culture, the Azad are very uncool- they have three genders, and the Apex gender treats men and women as slaves, basically.  The Azad are also low key into torture and rape, and they generally resemble what the worst in humanity might look like as a galactic empire.

  For my money, the most interesting part of the Culture universe Banks has dreamed up is the presence of sentient artificial intelligence as co-partners- not servants of the Culture.  How we treat sentient artificial intelligence is likely to be a major issue in the coming decades, and Banks is one of the first authors to take such an idea seriously- beyond the level of analysis first advanced by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein.

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