First, a little background.
The Culture is a post-scarcity, socialist/anarchist and hedonistic society run by sentient AI’s known as ‘Minds’. Since the humans of the Culture have no need to work most can spend their lives pursuing their hobbies. Enter Jernau Gurgeh- a famous board game player who, bored with the low stakes of wagering in a post-scarcity society, is convinced by the Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section to visit a brutal Empire held together by the intricate game of Azad. Played every six years, the Azad tournament determines a contestant’s position in society- and the ultimate winner is crowned Emperor (the argument goes that the skill it takes to win Azad are the same skills it’d take to run the Empire).
The Player of Games a great introduction to the Culture series. The first third of the book is spent in the Culture itself- giving us a feel for what life in this society is like and Gurgeh’s growing boredom with winning. The rest of the book gives us an opportunity to view the Culture through the eyes of a far less advanced society as Gurgeh competes in the Azad tournament.
It’s a testament to Banks’ writing that descriptions of fictional board games can be so beautifully written and enthralling, even when the actual rules and mechanics of them are kept vague.
The shortest of the Culture novels, Player of Games is has a fairly linear storyline but there are a few things I wish Banks had expanded on. For example, Gurgeh’s tactics in the game become more aggressive as time goes on. But it is impossible for Gurgeh to beat the Azadians using their own tactics as the opponents get tougher. It’s only after his Mind companion convinces him to switch from the harsh Azadian language back to the language of the Culture (Marain) that he is able to return to his original style of play. I would have loved more of a ‘language shaping thought’ motif throughout the novel, though I’m aware this is quite a personal bias as I’ve always been interested in this subject.
The Player of Games serves as the perfect introduction to the wider Culture universe but is equally suited to being a self-contained, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure story. Pick it up if you get a chance.