Player of Games by Iain Banks

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Banks, I. (1989). The player of games. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

This was a reread for me. I was feeling like reading an old familiar book that I hadn’t read for a while so I picked up a copy (courtesy of interlibrary loans). The Player of Games always makes me wonder what Banks was thinking of when he developed the two humanoid groups that oppose each other in this novel. The group the protaganist (Jernau Morat Gurge) belongs to, The Culture, is a group so large it goes beyond star systems. The people are not planet based but, like Jernau, live mostly on orbitals (constructed plates orbiting a hub) or on intergalactic star ships. The opposing group, The Empire of Azad, is a much smaller group that is still planetary based and lives only within a small star system.

Jernau is basically blackmailed into traveling to the Empire and playing their game Azad. This is a very special game which all in the Empire grow up playing. Azad determins one,s position in society and one’s job and indeed ultimately who becomes Emperor. Think civil service exam to the extreme. Jernau exceeds everyone’s expectations and ends up playing the final game of Azad for the title of Empire. Of course the Imperial elite tell him that it is all unofficial. The official version shown to the rest of the Empire has Jernau losing in the first game set in the finals. However, he later finds that this is not quite true. Unbeknownst to him, The Culture has given the Emperor the final ultimatum. Jernau will play for the Culture and if he wins The Culture will come in and control The Empire. If Jernau loses, The Culture will back off for some time. When it becomes clear that Jernau is going to win, the Emperor attempts to kill everyone at the game site (including himself and Jernau and all the government elite of The Empire). He only partly succeeds and Jernau survives. It is only later that he finds out he was playing for The Culture and what the actual stakes were in the final game.

The Empire is portrayed as being quite backward and unevolved compared to the Culture. The contrasts often remind me of old 1950-1970s science fiction with the contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union were made quite obvious. I would love to know what The Empire was modeled after and what the model for The Culture was.