Jernau Morat Gurgeh is bored of winning, a master of strategy and tactics who can beat anyone at almost any game. When Special Circumstances approach him to represent the Culture in the vicious Empire of Azad – home to a complex Game so revered the winner is made Emperor – he can’t say no. But to play will mean putting more than just his life at risk. Can he resist the lure of Azad?

Book cover: The Player of Games - Iain M Banks (a stylised game board with a man silhouetted behind it, considering)

It’s been a long time since I’d read The Player of Games, and I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it. Reading it so soon after Consider Phlebas, I’m struck just how well these first few volumes work as a sequence, even though they are set in different periods and focus on different protagonists and political situations.

Phlebas introduced the Culture from the outside, and dwelt long and hard on whether its relationship with technology was entirely healthy. Player inverts the view, giving us a look from the inside and then peering out at another civilisation from the Culture’s perspective. It also introduces the idea that the very nature of the Culture (a galactic society where anything that looks like work – including governance – has been delegated to AI so that humanity can get on with having a damn fine time) doesn’t produce citizens who make good agents provocateurs: so if drones can’t do the necessary, mercenaries are required do the dirty work (setting up Use of Weapons beautifully). But occasionally, a citizen must be pressed into service.

Gurgeh is introduced as atypical: a Culture citizen who is driven to excel and who looks down on those (everyone else) who take themselves less seriously. He hasn’t even played with his gender and sexuality, although he isn’t quite odd enough to pursue monogamy. His very focus makes him vulnerable: he is lured into cheating at a game not because he’s afraid to lose, but because it offers an opportunity to demonstrate a perfect win. Pride goes before a fall: it’s a set-up, leaving him vulnerable to blackmail when Contact come knocking and offer to whisk him off across the galaxy.

The bulk of the novel takes place on Azad, where Gurgeh – representing the Culture – enters the Game and persists in playing in spite of the disapproval of his prissy drone chaperone Flere-Imsaho and the repeated (sometimes murderous) attempts by the local competitors to dissuade him.

The book works hard on several levels: illustrating the Culture’s morality by contrasting it with Azad, where sexism, slavery and abuse are commonplace; showcasing round after bewildering round of tense Game matches (which I thoroughly enjoyed without ever really being able to picture what on earth they were doing); teasing us with the suggestion that Gurgeh is so disenchanted with the Culture that he might actually be seduced by Azad, where his actions count; and keeping us guessing as to whether he’ll survive long enough to have to make that call.

It’s a sensational mix and alongside the vivid world-building and colourful characters, it never stops throwing ideas at you to ponder. Having created a post-scarcity civilisation that liberates its citizens to enjoy endless hedonistic excess, Banks explores some possible consequences, starting with the suggestion that the freedom to do anything leads to shallow lives (Yay) or boredom and disillusion (Gurgeh).

Driven by Gurgeh’s dissatisfaction, at the heart of the book is this idea of a search for meaning and consequence. Humanity created the Minds so that they could goof off – but in so doing they have rendered themselves peripheral. Gurgeh has stature in the Culture, but the most he can hope to achieve is to become even better known for being good at gaming (such as by being the first Culture player to get a full web in Stricken). The Minds find humans entertaining and embrace a duty of care; and other (less developed) civilisation (like Azad) can’t or won’t deal with machines directly, so humans remain essential to Contact and Special Circumstances. But humans don’t set Contact policy and very few even get to see the big picture. Humanity is free to have fun, but gets to do very little else.

It’s all very Consider Phlebas with the idea that – counter to the teachings of most scifi / fantasy novels – no one person can make a difference (which Gurgeh explicitly comments on as a source of frustration). But in The Player of Games, we learn that Contact – or perhaps Special Circumstances – is the place to be to make a difference.

Crucially to me, though, the difference isn’t made to the Culture itself – it’s to another civilisation (typically less mature). To the Culture, these civilisations are still basically footnotes, much like Horza in Consider Phlebas. Here, Contact want Gurgeh on Azad to make a point – but Azad is no real threat to the Culture, they simply disapprove of its way of life. That said, I particularly liked the subplot about language shaping thought – with Flere-Imsaho becoming concerned when Gurgeh stops speaking Marain, because it leaves him vulnerable to the Azadian mindset.

It’s seems to me that the machines are the true moral arbiters of the Culture – it is the Rascal and Flere-Imsaho who openly disapprove of Azad. Gurgeh is more open-minded and less judgmental from the outset (for example, he doesn’t react strongly to the gladiatorial fight to the death that Za takes him to), and while there’s some slow-burning rage that gets teased out, he is pretty cold-blooded about the ‘delights’ of Hamin’s estate. The Culture’s population embraces the idea of live and let live – it is the Minds who refuse to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour beyond the borders.

This leads to internal tensions: it’s okay to meddle for the greater good, but the very nature of the Culture undermines its ability to do so. Its citizens aren’t well suited to intervention (or subterfuge). Worse, many would disapprove of what Contact – let alone Special Circumstances – get up to. The Idiran War was unpopular at the time it happened; history doesn’t look on it any more kindly. This brings us straight back to the role of less judgemental (and more capable) mercenaries, getting me all excited about Use of Weapons.

There’s so much complexity here, and I love it – The Player of Games feels far more thoughtful and nuanced than Consider Phlebas, with its blunt assaults on religion / faith and a lingering impression of false equivalences (Horza’s logic just doesn’t work for me). If Consider Phlebas was an explosive, tragic adventure, The Player of Games is both a tense thriller and a satisfying novel of big ideas (although – and I have to say it – I could equally argue it’s a book of big straw men; Banks never really allows the opposing view to become credible).

Once again, I have to admit I don’t like our protagonist as much as the drones (this will be a common theme, as I recall – I always liked the Minds and drones best), but I have far fewer reservations about recommending this as a great point of entry to the Culture.

*****