US][UK], by Iain M. Banks, is the second novel in the Culture series. It is set among an aggressive caste driven civilization whose whole society is strictly regimented and ranked according to a highly complex game played called Azad. To the Culture, the Empire of Azad is an anomaly. It has failed to evolve many of the more docile cultural traits typically associated with its technological level. Violence, slavery, and cruelty run free, something the culture cannot allow to continue.
Enters Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the most recognized and skilled Culture game player. In the Culture, game playing has been elevated to a philosophical and academic art. And so, our gaming superstar is wooed by Special Circumstances as a cultural envoy to the Azad. Sent there to learn the game of Azad and show the locals how skilled the Culture is, little does Gurgeh know that the fate of a civilization may rest on his talents.
The Player of Games is a fascinating novel on many levels. It can be read as an adventure, wherein an outsider must play a game against the best and brightest of an entire civilization. It is also a deep and sustained look at a culture that has eliminated physical force in favor of a game. Contests are decided in the ring, where wits are superior to force. Where one might assume that the shift from the physical to the intellectual would liberate and enlighten, this is far from the case. Therein, I like to think, lies the author's main point. That just because we don't whack each other with sticks anymore, doesn't mean we are civilized.
The Empire of Azad is cruel. Both to its own and those it conquers. The cast/slavery system maintained through the game of Azad empowers the powerful and crushes the weak. Depravity reigns at the highest levels of society. Not a place one would choose to go on vacation if you catch my meaning...
To not spoil the entire story for you, but much game playing ensues... hence the title of the book. The most fascinating aspect of the whole novel, to me at least, is that the rules of the game are never explained! At first I thought this would cause the challenges to bore me for lack of understanding, but far from it. The challenge of the games and the contest of wills which takes place between the participants is so artfully done that readers will not care that they don't have a clue what is going on. The meaning and intent is crystal clear, even if the rules are not.
In my review of Consider Phlebas I mentioned how the Culture novels and somewhat more mature than your standard space opera. There is action and intrigue and aventure, yes, but there is also much more. I think educated readers will very much enjoy the Player of Games, but also the series as a whole. There is something to appeal to virtually every academic discipline that comes to mind, which will have your brain churning in the background as your eyes devour each sentence.
All that aside, I personally enjoy it when stuff blows up... not very mature of me I know. And while there are a few bangs here and there, the lack of action makes it so that this is probably one of my least favorite culture novels, even though I appreciate it immensely on a more rational level.
That sums up my relatively spoiler free review of The Player of Games. Stay tuned next week for the Use of Weapons, the 3rd installment in my review of the Culture series. I should mention that the Use of Weapons is probably my 2nd favorite novel in the series...
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