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on 30 November 2002
Is one of Banks' books taking place in the Culture, a semi-galactic empire. The Culture is very advanced, very powerful, and very benevolent, which is unusual in (SF) literature. It is indeed, according to Banks, the driving force in the whole series, and I love him for it.
To put some suspence in the books, most of the stories take place on the edge of the Culture, literally and ethically, in the Special Circumstances division of Contact, the part of the Culture that deal with the new civilizations they meet as they expand into the Galaxy.
Here murder and intrigue can be necesary for the greater good.
The Player of Games is not the most action-filled of the Culture books (that would be Consider Phlebas), but it is my favorite, perhaps.
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on 27 January 2005
"Player of Games" remains to this day My favourite Iain M Banks, and possibly my favourite novel of all time. Unlike many of Banks' techno offerings (ie. "Consider Phlebas", and more recently "The Algebraist") it contains a completely fluid narrative with beginning, middle and end. It is a master class in the art of story telling, and to date is the only novel that I have rated with 5 stars.
Gurgeh's journey into the treacherous unknown is paralleled by his mental voyage of understanding. It is essentially a story about one man who appears to have attained his life's goals in the opening chapter. Set within the protective utopia that is the Culture: superficially an idyllic existance where death is impossible and the child-like hedonistic naivette of the Culture's citizens is preserved at all costs.
On the outside, Gurgeh appears to have everything. On the inside he detests the utopian prison and the perfect society that restrains him. He courts death to experience the rush of danger denied him by the overwhelming power of the Nanny state in which he lives. He cheats the system in a time where the very concept of cheating or lying had been made redundant centuries before. He seeks a return to the barbarism of olden days, a concept that is almost wholly absent from the molly-coddled heads of his contemporarys...
What Gurgeh gets from the Culture is a shocking eye-opener that uncovers the bestial, disgusting reality of human (and sub-human) nature. As the layers of protection offered by the Culture are peeled back one at a time, Gurgeh is brutally indulged in his dangerous fantasy and thrust into the real dystopian existance beyond the Culture's walls.
As ever, Banks' interplay between the animal and android remains fascinating and throws up a beautifully crafted twist at the end. The over-riding feeling throughout the novel is of an ever-increasing understanding of the limitless power of The Culture whose Big Brother status lurks beyond the immediate narrative like a hulking shadow. Who is The Player of Games? Gurgeh thinks it is him, but as both Gurgeh and the reader come to appreciate the scale of the game being played, it becomes obvious that we are both more pawn than player.
I would suggest that the education of any Sci-Fi lover is incomplete without reading this book, it is a perfect work of fiction and in my opinion has not been bested by Banks himself, or any other SF writer since.
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on 9 April 2002
My introduction to the work of Iain Banks came in a Glasgow bookshop,where half the display area seemed to be taken up with the cool black and white covers of his "literary" fiction. After thoroughly enjoying three or four of his novels I picked up "Player of Games" in my local library. Not normally a science fiction fan, I was immediately immersed in the story. This is a book to which all the usual cliches apply - unputdownable, a real page-turner - and they are all true. Like all of Banks' best work, it is also a book which it is sad to finish - you know you will never have the pleasure of reading it again for the first time.
The level of inventiveness, wit and sheer story-telling chutzpah displayed in this novel has probably not been bettered in any of Banks' other Culture novels...I have read them all and eagerly await each new arrival. The Culture is a wonderful creation of the imagination, and one which Banks succeeds is making utterly plausible. I have heard that Banks intended this to be his first published sci-fi work, but his publisher thought it best to start with "Consider Phlebas", to break the readership into The Culture more gently. They needn't have worried - read this first and, if you don't enjoy it, you probably won't enjoy any of the Culture novels.
I can't recommend Banks' work highly enough - if you only read "literature", do as I did and try the sci-fi too. And if you only read sci-fi, try the literary novels too - "Complicity" is a good starting point.
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on 8 July 2014
Readers of SF&F nearly always have one book they reread every year. The book most frequently quoted as being the one which is reread every year is the Lord of the Rings. Famously Christopher Lee liked to reread Lord of the Rings.

It is true I have read and re-read Lord of the Rings, but the book I have read every year, and sometimes if feels like it is permanently on my bedside table is this one. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.

This is a Culture book, for those of you who may not be familiar with Iain M Banks, he created a great civilisation called The Culture. And though he never set put to write a Trilogy or a series, the universe he created was so popular he returned to it again and again. The full list counts ten titles: Consider Phlebas, 1987; The Player of Games,1988; Use of Weapons, 1990; The State of the Art, 1991; Excession, 1996; Inversions, 1998; Look to Windward,2000; Matter,2008; Surface Detail, 2010; The Hydrogen Sonata, 2012.

The Player of Games is thus the second Culture book and I first read it in the year it was released. I have the 1989 edition paperback which has to my mind the most eye catching of all the covers ( see here ).

Its an interesting precursor to the gaming culture we are now all familiar with, and actually echoes Iain M Banks life long obsession with complex multiplayer board games, which is also writes about under the name Iain Banks in The Steep Approach to Garbadale. Iain M Banks, Iain Banks experience of games reflects my own university years, when not many students had TVs or Cars, and computers were locked away in a lab that was only open 16 hours a day unless a friendly tutor gave you a key and that was normally only for the most obsessive Computer Scientists.

As a student we would gather around a game board with the most arcane rules and while away 6 to 30 hours in play, banter and generally just being.

So Iain M Banks touches on this moment in time and add an element of competitive chess players to create the main character Jernau Morat Gurgeh abbreviated to Gurgeh throughout the book, and tells a tale of a man taken as we would now said 'out of his comfort zone', to play the greatest game of old.

In this book Iain M Banks does not build one civilisation but two, we have a blinding illustration of life in the Culture and this is easily contrasted with life in the Empire of Azar.

I don't think you are supposed to like Gurgeh, but his story as an individual who is unhappy but cannot see why he is unhappy, is compelling from the very first. The action really takes off when he reaches Azar, and here there is a skillful creation of a place which while The giant Culture Minds (great entities of Artificial Intelligence) believe is evil, but where Gurgeh finds a bloody beauty and a vitality that he never before experienced.

I always think there are echoes of our own world in the Empire of Azad, and I find it a strangely comforting place to be. I have no idea if that was the authors intent and is a very personal feelings.

I always recommend this book but with a hesitation. It has been on my bedside and in my life every day through all these long years back to 1989. So yes, a good read, more than that I cannot say.
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on 19 June 2013
I know this book has been published for 25 years, but since Bank's untimely death I have decided to work though his science fiction catalogue. Having already read Inversions and Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games was next on my list.

This novel is the clearest description of Bank's science fiction cosmology. Most of his SF novels revolve around The Culture, an 11,000 year old galactic civilisation, in which humans and sentient machines exist in a symbiotic relationship. Banks has mentioned in interviews that The Culture is a place he would like to live in (who wouldn't in fairness) and conforms to all his left wing ideals. Life in The Culture is idyllic; there is no crime, government, money, poverty. People and machines live on vast utopian space ships or orbital habitats, spending their time engaged in intellectual pursuits, visiting friends and relatives, changing gender and generally farting about. The machines themselves are either vast Minds that ensure the running of this civilisation or individual drones that live with the humans as mentors and friends or as emissaries for the various departments of the Culture.

The Culture also comes into contact with and investigates other civilisations galactic and planetary, malign or benign, assessing them for sociological interest or as military threats. There also seems to be a Star Trek like prime directive in which The Culture doesn't reveal themselves to those that haven't achieved interstellar travel, but unlike the prime directive, The Culture does meddle in more primitive societies.

This summary sounds dry and it takes a literary genius like Banks to make The Culture feel like a real place that you would want to experience and to identify with the characters both human and machine. His descriptions of the habitats are spectacular, with mountain ranges, forests and oceans. But it the interactions of peoples and machines that generate interest in the stories he describes. Even though he describes a virtual utopia, people still get jealous, frustrated, fall in and out of love and get bored. But for me I find the various drone characters the most appealing, they appear both wise and amusing, a cross between your best mate, your conscience, CP30 and Yoda.

The plot for The Player of Games, as the title suggest, deals with Gurgeh, an expert game player, who is recruited by The Culture's alien contact section to go to a distant galactic empire, Azad, to take part in a game that is integrated into the very social structure and ethos of the society. To me it is apparent that Banks creates a Manichean contrast between the idyll of the Culture and the evil of the Azad's feudal barbarism. The character Gurgeh is at once repelled and attracted to Azad as he progresses in the game up to the final dénouement. Of course as the plot develops we get the feeling that there is more than one game being played and that Gurgeh may not be in control of his destiny as he might think....

Gurgeh himself comes across as phlegmatic, more an observer of events rather than a participant. This has led him into a kind of world weary cynicism which got him into trouble back on his Culture habitat. His experiences on Azad seem to slowly become a journey of redemption, aided by the enigmatic drone Flere Imhaso.

Banks employs a variety of literary styles and set pieces, including the soaring space opera of ships plying their way through the vastness of interstellar space, to philosophical discussion, gritty social realism and exciting shoot outs and chases. Also Banks knows how to write dialogue, the discussions between characters are some of the most memorable, including, at one stage, two conversations occurring simultaneously.

In conclusion I would say that this is an outstanding science fiction novel, Banks doesn't really introduce anything new to the genre, but it is the strength of his writing and imagination that carry the story along.
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on 19 February 2013
Although always in awe of his imagination, I find myself having widely differing reactions to Banks' abilities as a storyteller, specifically, his ability to suck me in to the yarn. While I consider Use of Weapons to be one of the most remarkable sci-fi novels I've ever read, Excession left me cold. The Algebraist, although not a Culture novel, rates toward to higher end of engrossment.

It's a personal thing, acknowledged. But as I reflect on my reactions, I see a pattern. For me, mind-blowing space opera is not enough. Yes, Banks creates believable worlds, complete with worldviews on technology, sex, gender, time, familial and societal structures, ownership, and the rest. Yes, his humour runs like a golden vain throughout (I particularly love the names of Culture ships; here, we meet Flexible Demeanour, Just Read The Instructions and Youthful Indiscretion).

But I need the proverbial human element through which to view all this. Excession was all about AI Minds working through moral dilemmas with other Minds. Interesting concept, for a philosophy thought experiment. Not want I want on my down time. I know, I know, literature can challenge and stretch as well as entertain. But it must at least entertain, in order to keep my interest. And that means a central, human character who can hold the whole thing together.

So meet Jernau Morat Gurgeg, central protagonist and title holder of The Player of Games. We don't get a massive biographical background on him, but enough details to arouse our curiosity and credulity. Unlike Use of Weapons, the novel is not all about him; it's about how he as a typical but talented representative of the Culture interacts with an antagonistic culture, the Azad, through the medium of a game.

In order to appreciate this premise, I guess you might, like me, have to be captivated by the answers to these questions. What if games were not a form of entertainment in a society but the chief glue that held it all together? What if, instead of law, or reason, or rights, there was a game that determined your place and function in society? What if this game was designed to reflect reality so that the skills needed for success in the game led to success in life?

Then, 'life is a game' loses is metaphoric intent. In fact, in the novel, Azad means the Empire, the game they play there, and a word that can be interpreted as 'system'. If Mars helps you work, rest and play, then Azad is work, rest and play. When you play, it reveals not only your tactical and strategic preferences, but also your ethical premises and personality. Finally, for our player of games, it forces him to reveal in his playing style what the Culture is really all about.

The hero and the journey fit together perfectly, both individually and as they interact. That's one reason why I like the book. Another is that it made me think about games, playfulness, and their part in our society. Are they more than a pastime, more than a business, more than a metaphor? I think of the concepts of language-games (Wittgenstein), man the player (Huizinga), the play ethic (Kane), and infinite games (Carse). I'm still trying to put all this stuff together in my head. Banks' novel provides a nice, fictional contribution to this possible paradigm-shift from Mars to Azad.

I give it four stars because it kept getting aced in my head by another sci-fi novel that takes the life-as-game model further and, to my mind, with more epic sweep and sympathetic characters. I refer to The True Game by Sheri S Tepper (see my review), in which the game doesn't reflect life but forms its structure and rules, as well as the identities of every player.

Now wouldn't that be fun?
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Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master games-player. From his home Orbital, he has mastered many different games played by many different species and been beaten rarely. Slightly bored with his life, the Culture offers him the chance to travel to the cruel Empire of Azad and there take part in the most complex game the Culture knows of, a game so important that those who win it can become generals, statesmen and even emperors.

As an alien, Gurgeh is of course barred from winning public office from the game, but is determined to win anyway, even when doing so may strain relations between the Azadians and the Culture. However, nothing is as it seems.

The Player of Games, the second Culture novel originally published in 1988, is less epic than Consider Phlebas and much more personal. It is nevertheless every bit as compelling. The first third or so of the novel follows Gurgeh's life on his home Orbital and his growing dissatisfaction with life there which provokes him into making a rash move which soon has him considering the offer to journey to Ea, the Azadian homeworld. As the story develops, we explore both the Culture and the alien society through the games that Gurgeh plays, but the book itself is also a game. The characters are the pieces, being moved around for stakes far greater than those in the fictional game itself, and the finale offers a highly satisfying resolution and explanation of what has gone before.

Gurgeh isn't the most likable of protagonists, as he's an obsessive who is naive about the world outside his games, but at the same time his conflicts make for interesting reading. The secondary cast of drones, Azadians and fellow Culture agents are all well-drawn, and their reactions to Gurgeh tell us a lot more about his character than he reveals himself (with a couple of very brief exceptions we are in Gurgeh's head in a limited third-person POV for most of the book). Banks' black sense of humour is also present and correct.

The Player of Games (****½) is an unusual but highly satisfying SF novel that couldn't be more different from its predecessor but works just as well. An ingenious and compelling story of games, intrigue and character, and well worth a look. The Player of Games is available now from Orbit in both the UK and USA.
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on 11 January 2004
‘The Player of Games’ was Iain Banks’s second foray into science-fiction, following the epic space-opera of ‘Consider Phlebas’. But you could be forgiven for thinking these books were by two completely different authors. Banks is well known for the massive variety of genres he covers under his non-M moniker, but it is little acknowledged that the same is true of his science-fiction. While ‘Consider Phlebas’ was an outright romp through space battles, superfluous but thrilling technology and ideas, ‘The Player of Games’ marked the beginning of something great: the cerebral masterpieces of the Culture novels.
The story centres around Gurgeh, an ordinary Culture man who is dissatisfied with a life in which he can have anything he wants; symbolically he plays games almost constantly to provide the challenges that the every-day, pampered lives of the Culture’s citizens denies him. As with much of Banks’s fiction, the central protagonist is very much an outsider, whose more conservative principles, compared to the rest of the Culture, make him easier to identify with, and later to both empathise and learn with as his preconceptions about the sanctity of the Culture (or, for us, our own culture) are destroyed. Gurgeh is blackmailed into leaving the safety of his home to play the most complicated game ever created: Azad. A game so complex and comprehensive it is the closest replication of real life possible, but as the intrigues of the game continue, Gurgeh increasingly realises that this reflection is less than accurate. The real world is much, much nastier. Banks revels in making Gurgeh face up to the vices of humanity, the lust for power and the perversion of it.
More than anything, however, this is a book about manipulation. In the end, Banks is the real player of games in this novel. Not only is Gurgeh ruthlessly manipulated from the very beginning, but so are you as the reader. There is no black and white in Banks’s books, and the reader is allowed to think for themselves, or rather allowed to think they can think for themselves. But Banks changes all the rules of the author-reader relationship and endlessly forces you to consider how much you should trust any voice telling you what is true and right, and to question its motives.
This may sound like ‘The Player of Games’ is an intensely dark novel, but this is not the case at all. There is a great deal of the wonder experienced throughout ‘Consider Phlebas’ (and all Banks’s other novels) at the sheer inventiveness of this man. There’s plenty of his trademark cynical, but hilarious, wit; but, this book is far more than the somewhat simplistic quest stories of ‘Phlebas’ and ‘Against a Dark Background’. ‘The Player of Games’ proves that science-fiction can also be literature, and is an exemplary forerunner to the sublime ‘Use of Weapons’. I don’t think it’s as good as ‘Use of Weapons’, but there’s very little else that can be said against such creatively intellectual, but buckets of fun, fare.
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on 8 June 2011
I wrote a review recently about Iain M Banks's first Culture novel, "Consider Phlebas", which I hadn't enjoyed too much. For my taste, "The Player of Games", the follow up, is altogether a more successful novel, principally because the plot and the central character are more consistent and believable.

One of the concerns I had with "Consider Phlebas" was the extraneous nature of sections of the plot, which seemed like blind-alleys to me. "The Player of Games" is more focused, the plot tighter and its central character, Gurgeh, more believable.

Also of interest is the development of ideas on the Culture, which is explored in more detail than in that first book.

In conclusion, an altogether more successful SF novel which leaves you wanting to come back for more Culture episodes!
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on 30 June 1999
This is the book I use to convert friends to Bank`s SF output. It has all the fleshed out characterisation and morality plays of his non-genre books, and enough high powered toys to keep the geeks happy, while never losing the underlying streak of brutality that made "The Wasp Factory" so grimly fascinating. The central premise of the book (the best player of Azad, a thinly diguised form of Civ 2, rules the Empire) seems to be a result of Bank`s confessed addiction to that game. Indeed, he had to throw away his copy because he wanted his life back.
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