Thursday, April 23, 2009

Book: Iain M. Banks' "The Player Of Games"


Iain M. Banks' "The Player of Games" is my second Culture novel and I am in a confusing place - I like the world Banks has created but the story he tells is rather bland. What's a guy to do?

The Culture is a post-human, post-singularity technological utopia. Technology is ubiquitous and invisible. As a matter of fact, Banks' seldom discusses the Culture's technology. Thing's that seem impossible simply work somehow. Reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This technology underpins a decentralised, almost anarchic governance. Everyone is free to do what they wish and there is abundance of everything.

"The Player of Games" follows Gurgeh, a game player (duh). Game playing appears to be an important thing for Banks as he uses it as a subplot/backdrop in "Consider Phlebas". The nature of the Culture diminishes the stakes of game playing. There is no money. Everything is abundant. Everyone can have anything anytime they want it. How do you wager in such a world? This inevitably leads Gurgeh, the best human game player in the Culture, to become bored. Gurgeh, through a rather complicated plot device, decides to join with the Culture organization known as Contact, to travel to a non-Culture empire to play, what is described as, the ultimate game.

The game of Apex is a game that governs a brutal empire. Periodic tournaments choose whole will be emperor. The Culture is invited to play in the games as a good will gesture between the two galactic powers. The complexity of Apex is supposed to be unprecedented. I found this hard to swallow. The Culture is led by incredibly advanced artificial intelligences known as Minds. They are orders of magnitude superior to humans and have access to nearly unlimited knowledge. It seems to me that the Culture could come up with more complex and more challenging games.

The novel follows Gurgeh's progress in the game and, through his innocent Culture point of view, his discovery of the empire's barbarism and decadence. I think this is Bank's attempt to show the problems with our culture through the eyes of his fictitious Culture but I think he is a little heavy handed and he falls flat. In the end there is a twist that, unfortunately, is telegraphed light years ahead. There is little real surprise or new perspective in this story.

So what's a guy to do? I like the Culture. I want to learn more about it. But the creator of this wonderful universe, the author, is a rather blah story teller. His style is readable but the characters lack some depth and the action, what little there is, is ordinary and predictable. I intend to read the third book but my hopes are not very high that it will be any better.

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