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on 14 March 2003
In "The Player Of Games", an immensely powerful but somewhat lazy and hedonistic man-machine society called the Culture plays a game against the much smaller but aggressively militaristic Empire of Azad. The Empire has as one of its key social drivers a hugely complex board game called Azad (which means Life). Successful players of Azad prosper in the Azadian society, winning promotions in the military and civil service. Every few years the society stages a major tournament at which the best Azad player becomes Emperor.
Into this milieu the Culture plays its "piece", a professional game-player called Gurgeh who has spent his entire life playing every sort of game of strategy but would probably hurt himself if he tried to use any kind of weapon. Gurgeh's attempts to compete in the Azad tournament reflect the many contrasts between the two civilisations - and also show up unexpected similarities.
This fine novel can be read in different ways. On one level, it's simply a blast - pacy, exciting, suspenseful widescreen space opera. Read it on a beach and get badly sunburnt. However, there's a lot more depth there if you want it. Banks raises a lot of interesting questions about how we set the rules of our society and how all kinds of play interact with those rules. Are cruelty and ruthlessness taught by game-play - whether in the children's playground or in multiplayer internet shoot-'em-ups - or do people's choice of games tell you about their society? Banks is a known addict of the "Civilization" series of strategy computer games, which many otherwise mild-mannered people play as brutal conquerors and commit acts which in Real Life(TM) would be war crimes. The Culture itself, of course, has gained power and stability at the expense of what one might call "soul". Most people who read this as their first Iain M novel tend to think the Culture sounds great, but on a re-read, or combined with the other novels, there are plenty of problems. The name itself is a sly joke - after all, a "culture" can mean both a human society and bacteria growing on a plate.
Finally, some reviewers have commented that the book's ending seems a little flat after the immersive, sweaty-palms roller-coaster of what comes before; I feel that Banks has perfectly captured the slight feeling of anticlimax when one finishes a particularly intense game of Civilization!
Among Banks' output, this is the easiest of the "Iain M" books to get into and one of the most enjoyable of all his novels. Intelligent, gripping science fiction with a literary edge - warmly recommended.
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on 10 June 2013
I have been meaning to read the Iain M Banks novels for several years now, often glancing at the cover and wondering what lies beneath the surface. I embarked on my journey, diving into Consider Phlebas with gusto, having received the 25th Anniversary box set as a birthday present earlier this year. And how timely it was with the recent, sad news of Mr Banks' passing. Whilst people laud the first book as the classic Iain M Banks Culture novel - and it undeniably is the one that provides the momentum to start the ball rolling - I did feel that there was something missing. The Player of Games, for me, has provided that missing gear.

It is a subtle (and in many ways, not so subtle) story. An intelligent read, lending itself to explore the politics and psychology of the individual and how society shapes one's thoughts. This is more than lasers, masers and space combat in the tour de force of Player of Games; more than merely being painted as "a space opera". It echoes Cold War politics and I often had thoughts of how life would be for the Grand Masters of the great chess tournaments between East and West and the "loneliness of the long distance runner" (or chess player) in crossing these cultural and political barriers, journeying into quite often an "alien" society (and often hitting them head on). Iain M Banks was often hailed as a prescient author. And the "clash of civilisations" affirmed in Consider Phlebas, and gently nodded to in The Player of Games, still resonates today in 21st century geo-politics: the in-depth portrayal of the Azadian state-system in the novel could be North Korea, Iran, Syria, or to a lesser extent, a small number of African states, or even China; lending itself to cold, callous politburo, murderous barbarism and decedent xenophobia.

I think what is really clever about Iain Banks' novels - and what makes me want to get involved with this series of novels even more - is his bitumen dark humour: the names of the Mind ships, the relationships between sentient drone and human, and his capacity to be the incomplete, ruthless, often one-sided, narrator. He has his balance right in Player of Games, often switching from humour to tragedy at the flick of a sentence, or the turn of a page. Yes, the pace of this novel is somewhat slower (in parts) than its predecessor, but the momentum builds cleverly, and when the punch comes, the spittle and malice of some of the characters is just right; not comical or contrived like in many sci-fi novels. In essence his books offer us a complete, modern, intelligent sci-fi universe which does not press too painfully on the technicalities of science, but merely nods and winks and gives us an "I told you so".

For those familiar with the Culture series of novels, I congratulate you on your journey. [Little spoiler alert] And, like the exhausted hero in The Player of Games, commiserate with you all the same, knowing that this good work has, sadly, come to an end.

Thank you, Mr. Banks.
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on 31 January 2007
This is not a book for purists (Iain Banks or Sci Fi). This is the most Culture-d(imho) of Banks' books. All the amusing ship names and foul mouthed witty droids are here, plus excellent alien races and sly and not so sly reference to modern popular culture. There are some great themes about boredom, cheating, redemption and the glory of untamed cultures with primaeval urges and how attractive that can be. The Culture does not come out of this one unscathed; but the rationale for its power and success is evident.

Banks continues a theme started in Consider Phlebas about the importance of games in a society where much of the danger, and therefore excitement has been diluted by obsessive and overbearing technology - people cannot even die decently and eventually get bored and order themselves to be destroyed; it seems that immortality will eventually suck.

The visceral thrill that the protagonist feels when he realises that his entire reputation is on the line because he has cheated is relevant to how we currently live today, fairly insulated from excitement or having hygiencally cleansed experiences like bungy jumping to try and reconnect with our limbic system and some more basic pleasures like, fear, lust and anger.

If you like the Culture element of Banks' books then this is the one to read and if you like a bit of redemption and thoughtfullness then go for it!
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2006
"The Player of Games" is an exquisitely constructed piece of science-fiction and it is one of the best novels that I have read for some time. Iain M Banks creates a detailed and entirely credible future world populated with a wide range of interesting and intriguing characters. The standard of writing is exceptionally high ,as one would expect from this author, with life on the Chiark Orbital and the Fire Planet Echronedal being portrayed particularly vividly. "The Player of Games" is set against the backdrop of an engagement between the Culture and a newly discovered Empire called the Azad, whose power structure is based around success in an elaborate game of the same name. Chiark Orbital resident and expert games player ,Jernat Gurgeh, is asked by Culture S.C. to participate in the game as a representative of the Culture at the behest of the Azadian Emperor. As the game progresses, Gurgeh finds out that success at this game comes at a much higher price than he could ever have imagined. While the storyline is entertaining and absorbing , the best part of the novel is the backdrop of the clash of values and attitudes between the cruel and aggressive inhabitants of the Azad and the hedonistic, hi-tech cunning of the Culture, which like all of the best science fiction novels mirrors events and conflicts on Earth. The drones ,Mawhrin-Skel and Flere-Imsaho, are wonderful creations as is the talented ,phlegmatic games player , Gurgeh. The book is perfectly paced and builds up steadily, culminating in an exciting finale with a surprising little twist at the end. I would recommend "The Player of Games" not only to science fiction fans , but to mainstream novel readers as well.
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on 15 December 2010
Civilisation and the Culture (An AUDIO BOOK REVIEW)

This is a stunning book, that I had not read, since it first came out when I was a kid. But it was good enough to stick with me over the many intervening years. This reading is fantastic. Great interpretations of the characters. Hope the accents don't upset anybody. Highly,highly recommended. If we are lucky Mr.Kenny will be reading the rest of the series too.( He also did a great job with -Consider Phlebas) p.s please hurry with the others, I can't wait until -Excession is given the same treatment.

p.p.s Would the reviewers of KINDLE products please resist such extreme negative marking. We get it,the Kindle products are a rip off at the moment, but you don't have to destroy the ratings of the original product, just ditch the kindle 'till the price of contents becomes more realistic. Thank you in advance! MSMG
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on 23 February 1999
As any reader of Banks' science fiction knows, the Culture is a sprawling proto-Communist superpower of genetically-modified humanoids and hyper-intelligent sentient machines. This book portrays the Culture at its best and worst, from the idealistic paradise that comes with being a part of the Culture, to the utterly insidious and Machiavellian way that it manipulates other interstellar empires. A gem of a book, with some of Banks' most engaging characters so far.
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on 4 July 2006
Shifting between lives that mirror games, games that control lives, with confusion between reality, gameplay, and subterfuge, The Player of Games is a truly splendid novel. The story expands (along with Gurgeh's horizons) as homely Chiark is left far behind en route to play the Game, but the full stream of the narrative (and Banks' frankly mind-boggling imagination) really switches on when he reaches Azad.

A fantastic and deeply realised, well-characterised story. Beats me what the negative reviewers have been reading.
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on 24 February 2003
My first dip into the sea of imagination created by Iain (M) Banks was this inspired story; The Player of Games. This novel not only displays the rich and flavourful society of the Culture it also exposes the way the it treats other societies considered 'inferior' or simply a potential threat to their eutopian-like way of life. Orchastrated by the Contact branch (a sort of special services network in the culture) the Culture sends their best strategest and game player, Jurgen Gurgeh, to the distant Empire of Azad to play in a contest of perhaps the greatest of games, one that forms the very positions one assumes in society, the highest prize: being made Emperor.
The sheer contrast between the Culture and Azadian societies is shown magnificently; where the Culture is open on all fronts we quickly see that, although the rise to power in the Azad system forms a seemingly stable Empire, underneath its glossy surface unimaginable and speakable acts are commited.
This intelligent and fast novel will have you racing to the next page, its sci-fi technology driven worlds, though deeply imaginative and original, will not leave you floundering in doubt. This is an extremely enjoyable read that despite its setting opens your eyes to how life actually is in OUR world, and how Societies today behave towards those seen as a threat.
If you are new to the Culture novels this eases you in with the expert edge only Banks possesses...
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on 20 July 2008
Since Iain M Bank's series of books about 'The Culture' are such wonderful soft sci-fi this necessarily does make it a great sci-fi novel compared to any other sci-fi authors out there but also is very good compared with the author's other sci-fi work and makes (again some people may disagree) a better entry point to the series than 'Consider Phlebas' which is the first.

Living in the Culture, one basically wants for nothing. Iain M Banks has remarked that since everything is so utopian in the Culture, to get stories, things have to be set on the edge of the Culture or told about outsiders. In the Culture everything that people could want is provided for them but for the protagonist and one of the greatest games players in the entire Culture, Jernau Gurgeh - this is stifling him. Always ready to help, Contact (the society's starfleet-like arm) offer him a chance at real danger and excitement and at playing the most complex game he has ever come across. He journeys to the Kingdom of Azad to play a game so like life itself that the ultimate winner of it becomes emperor.

Exactly who though is manipulating Gurgeh? The aliens he has come to play, unwilling to let an alien beat them at their own game? Or his own people? That is a big question and is answered quite beautifully with different layers of complexity as you read through the book. Its very unlikely you'll see the final twist coming.

The game has plenty of excitement and raises questions relevant to our own culture. Superb science fiction.
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on 17 July 2008
"The Player of Games" is Iain M. Banks' second novel set in the universe of the Culture, a human-machine symbiotic society spanning most of the Galaxy. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master of board games - indeed he is regarded as one of the best human players the Culture has ever seen - but despite his many successes is nevertheless unable to find contentment. However, when the Culture's covert operations branch, Special Circumstances, invites him to travel to a newly-discovered empire to compete in the championships of Azad - thought to be the most intricate and complex strategy game ever devised - Gurgeh soon accepts the challenge. Because to the Empire's citizens, Azad is not just a game; it is everything, determining social and political rank - and ultimately, the man who will become Emperor. But not everyone in the Empire likes the idea of an outsider competing with them - and succeeding - at their own game...

In contrast to other books of his Culture series - such as "Excession" - "The Player of Games" is centred around the story of one character - Gurgeh. Talented and intellectual, he nonetheless remains naive in many ways about the nature both of the Culture and of the Empire and about the exact role he is playing in their relations. The existence of a main character, towards whom it is easy to feel sympathetic, ensures that a strong narrative thread is maintained throughout the book. Likewise the pacing is generally well managed; rarely is the plot allowed to drift, although the climax is unfortunately somewhat rushed.

Banks's informal, almost conversational style of writing may not be to everyone's taste, but he uses this to his advantage in this book, employing a mystery narrator whose identity is not revealed until the end. Indeed this is one of several games being played in this book: a game played by the author with his readers, which mirrors that between Gurgeh and his opponents and also that between Culture and Empire. This latter struggle is an underlying theme of the book, and one which becomes more prominent as the Empire's dark side is revealed. For though at first sight it appears exotic and colourful, it is also a society driven by sadism and violence - a stark contrast to the utopian vision that the Culture purports to be. But what is most fascinating in this book is the way in which the Culture itself comes across (for the first time in this series) as somewhat ambiguous - even lacking - with regard to its own morality.

"The Player of Games" is an absorbing and highly imaginative novel, with rich settings and fascinating characters combining to create a narrative with many layers.
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