The Player of Games

Iain M. Banks
The Player of Games Cover

Excellent Space Opera


The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is a fun book, filled with intrigue and a couple of plot twists that kept me interested -- though I have to say that I figured out the plot twists well before they were revealed. It's an idiot talent I inherited from my father, though. He used to read or watch a "who-dun-it" and know about half way through who-dun-it...

But I love the world that Banks builds in the Culture books. It is post-scarcity, and humans very peaceful. In a way, it almost reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson's civilization on Mars. But grown up.

Unfortunately, there are parts of the world that have always had me saying,"This is unrealistic. Because the genes for sociopathy still existing in about 5% of the population." But then, U suspend my belief. Because the Culture is so cool -- talking and self-aware drones, and sentient interstellar ships with names like "Youthful Indiscretion" and "Kiss My Ass" -- well, what's not to like? Sort of like a return to Eden. Or living in a world where the "gods" are ever there with you. But they're not spiritual forces, but transcended AI's...

In this foray into the Culture, I was most impressed with how Banks made us crawl into the mind of his protagonist, the game master Gurgeh. Gurgeh has been recruited to play a super complex strategy game in a distant Azad Empire, a theocracy-based meritocracy that is not currently a member of the Culture. In fact the game is named Azad. And the rulers of the Azad Empire attain that position by winning in Azad.

It sounds like a decent, if slightly irrational way to run a government. And Gurgeh seems to assume that, except for some income inequalities, Azad is simply a more barbaric Culture.

But it turns out that the game master, for all his wiles on the game boards, is a bit naive. Before they leave the capital city for the final round of the Azad tournament, his companion drone Flere-Imsaho takes him on a tour of the city he'd not yet seen. Huge parts of Azad's culture, it turns out, had been hidden from him by the empire's rulers. He sees torture and murder. He sees sado-masochism on a scale that shocks him. And drives him to play with pitiless remorse against an opponent that, until then, was merely a slightly pompous player of a strategy game.

Eventually, this propels Gurgeh into the final rounds. Where he pits his own Culture-grown brand of strategy against the best player the Azad have to offer. And the climax of the game is one to be remembered.

I'd recommend this to anyone who wants a thoughtful, well written space opera, set on a somewhat plausible world. Solid read.

Leo Walsh is a writer, currently living in Cleveland, Ohio. For more from Leo, check Leo's Blog at