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Allen Baird (Belfast, Northern Ireland)

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Play World: The Emergence of the New Ludenic Age
Play World: The Emergence of the New Ludenic Age
by James E. Combs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £78.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A witty, rich, and farsighted contribution to play studies with one minor flaw, 3 Jun. 2013
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This book is a great follow-on from Huizinga's masterful 'Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture'. After an introductory chapter, Combs divides his material into past, present and future. Where did play come from ('dynamics')? How are we playing now ('pragmatics')? What could our play-world look like in the not-too-distant future ('futuristics')?

The playful introduction states Combs' central thesis: "we are entering a new phase of history characterized by so much play that we can deem it a play world" (20). Of note for me here are Combs' citation of Csikszentmihalyi's work on 'flow' ("deep play") and play's subversive power against the forces of social constraint (especially in school). I particularly appreciated his attempt to capture the essence of play in the phrase "as if" (9-10). This creates the frame, the magic circle, the drama of the act of play.

Instead of summarising each of these sections, as I had intended to do, I'd like to focus on a flaw instead. Combs underestimates, even underplays, the serious tones of our modern age. He charts an upwardly climbing trajectory for ludenic possibilities from the ghastly puritans to our present gamers. It is a narrative of steadily decreasing heaviness/earnestness, and increasing play. My problem is that much of this does not comport with my experience. As a citizen of the UK in the early 21st century, I hear the grinding sermons of neo-puritanism daily.

Let me mention a few phrases. Political correctness. Social justice. Relative poverty. Corporate social responsibility. Corporate raiding. Fair trade. Discrimination and diversity. Affirmative action. Multi-culturalism. Whistleblowing. Freedom of information. Sexual harassment. Health and safety. Insider trading. Animal rights. Offender rehabilitation. War on terror. Ecological terrorism.

My point has nothing to do with the validity or otherwise of any of these concepts or movements. My only point here is that they are heavy (i.e. non-playful) and that they are inescapable. They saturate all forms of media here. I sense their presence everywhere, from high-minded artistic efforts, to middlebrow newspapers and radio programmes, to populist soap story lines and Hollywood movies.

I feel myself surrounded, daily, by this kind of modern, secular Puritanism. I feel 'preached at' by the media. I feel mentally and verbally restrained. I feel encircled by what Combs calls 'seriosity'. Even stand-up comedians, now that sexism and racism are off the menu, feel the need to make anti-sexist and anti-racist gags, proving that they're on-side now. We don't use terms like 'wicked' and 'ungodly' anymore; instead, we have 'inappropriate' and 'offensive'.

Do I exaggerate? This very day, as I write and publish this review, there is an article on the BBC website ("BBC 'got it wrong' over Balding gag") that illustrates my point. The BBC has apologised for comments made on a comedy quiz show about curing lesbianism. The comments were made during a game called Defend the Indefensible as part of the live show Fighting Talk. Five people complained. The BBC immediately apologised and claimed the comment was 'inappropriate'. Context was relevant; ideology is everything.

Combs points out that the political correctness of the 'joke police' exists just as much on liberal campus universities as rural Christian schools or communist state schools (13). His flaw is to limit this PC attitude to the 'popular level' (63) whereas for me it lives primarily at the state and legal levels. If, as he claims, in our emerging play culture, "all serious agendas and people are subjected to comic ridicule," then, in the UK at least, we still have a long way to go. Those 'funny people' of the 60's might have shaken up various forms of institutional seriousness (94), but they simply replaced it with others. The 'virtue industry' I experience on this side of the Atlantic is not Combs' forces of 'neoconservatism and evangelism' (119) but the identity politics and cultural Marxism of the New Left i.e. our contemporary 'neo-Puritans' (51, 126).

Speaking of politics, I deeply appreciate Combs' insight on the link between play and the 'libertarian impulse' (50-1). The political implications and applications of a play agenda must be towards an increase in personal choice and individual freedom. It's a virtuous circle: "the enchanting fulfilments of play gives associative support to the desire to create the wealth to afford play and for the liberty to choose play" (145).

Even more impressive is Combs' on-the-button prophecy about another, possible greater threat to the advancement of a play world than the political - the economic. If money makes a basis for play, then lack of money taketh away. But once a certain level of play expectancy, indeed play rights, have been achieved in a country, then woe betide the government what withdraws them. "The politics of play means that it is difficult to enforce and sustain a regime of austerity" (106). Economic scarcity is the greatest barrier to achieving the play world Combs envisages (124-5). But so powerful does he believe the play life to be in us, that it can even overcome out present 'environmental strain and recessions' (131) by the sheer force of cultural hope.

Play World is peppered with juicy morsels. Here are a few.

Combs links play to magic (12, 90, 144-5) and even myth (20, 142). "The ontological myth of the coming era will be pursuing happiness, and the cosmopolitan world culture will tend to define happiness and the willingness and ability to have fun...Play becomes a myth of live by, acquiring the ontological status of an ethic and a purpose: play is by nature good."

Play finds its origins in the Dionysian cults (19), and works by allowing the `pleasure principle' to be incorporated into civilization, so that "the Dionysian expression of joy and even ecstasy is not a threat but a promise." As to the problems of how to distinguish good play from bad play, of help is Nietzsche's distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian (147-8), and the balance between mental and bodily play that this division suggests, thereby limiting Dionysian excesses (119).

Combs makes some telling literary references throughout his book. One is a frequent reference to Huxley's Brave New World as the usual example of a play/pleasure world gone horribly wrong. He also plays a nice game of 2084, updating Orwell in a more optimistic mood (131). I had never heard of Bernard de Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees (39) but I look forward to acquainting myself with it and its 'invisible hand' / 'greed is good' type thesis.

There are interesting comments on the neofudalism of Star Wars (118), the fun of joining a cult (134), and the rise of the play ethic over the work ethic (73). Huizinga's 'Puerilism' - too much bad play - gets a mention (121), but Combs instead targets 'Healthism' (60, 126), whereby "moral judgments are legislated or informally imposed with the authority of public health..." (60). Hear, hear! But isn't it those 60's, liberal, ex-hippies who lie behind this?

Anyway, enough politics, even if we do shift to seeing it as a comedy of manners (136)! Play World is an optimistic, refreshing read. Each successive chapter improves on the last. It's a treat to read a book about play published in the 21st century that isn't obsessed with computer games and technology but that takes a wider view, that doesn't shy away from the deeper issues, and that is so beautifully written.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts
by Douglas Adams
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

6 of 40 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars 42 is not enough, 30 May 2013
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is incredibly funny and incredibly smart. Let's all accept that from the start. End of. Period. Full stop. That's not in question for me. So why the one star? I admit that part of my purpose is provocative; I'd like to start a little debate here. But most of it is due to the persisting sense of despondency that the book has left in my mind, like a lingering shadow, each time I remember it. It seems that diversion and delight are not the same, after all.

Forget about the funny incidents, look at the big picture. The Earth and virtually all of its inhabitants are destroyed for trivial reasons. The Earth is literally a planet-sized computer, the construction of which could earn extra-terrestrial beings a prize. The universe is ruled by (either) a megalomaniac idiot or a being who is not sure about what actually exists. The answer to the question of the meaning of life is absurd i.e. both silly and hollow. It's possible to watch the entire cosmos collapse from the viewpoint of an eatery at set intervals.

Isn't this tragedy rather than comedy?

'But it's the little incidents that you're overlooking that make the novel funny in the first place. You're not supposed to take any of the rest of it seriously. The sci-fi structure is merely a platform from which to lunch chuckles at the whimsy of a certain type of Englishman. There is no tragedy here, no downgoing, no fall, no hubris and flaw. Lighten up, dude! It's a literary, novel-length joke, nothing more.'

Good points. Let me retort with a question that will divide you.

Can any subject form the subject matter for a joke?

For example, is a racist joke still funny if it's racist? Those who answer that certain things cannot be counted as funny admit that jokes have their limits. Well, for me, at a primitive, emotional level, jokes about the meaning of life and death of the Earth/universe are in the same category as racist jokes, only more so. And to those who answer that nothing is outside the field of the risible, I answer, I don't believe you unless you are a nihilist, holding nothing as intrinsically significant or valuable at all.

Which is exactly where I feel THGTTG takes me: nihilism. Everything - including genocide, torture, and totalitarianism - is the object of mirth within these pages. There are problems with this, ethically and logically. Do you truly want to maintain they everything on earth is funny? For example, is child abuse funny? And if everything is funny, then nothing is funny, because 'funny' cannot be defined in contrast to the non-funny.

My point is not legalistic. I'm not saying that one ought not to laugh at certain things, like a po-faced, prissy puritan. My point is, what does the fact that we do laugh about these things say about us? What effect does such laughter bring in the longer term? The more you laugh at high and deep things, the less there are great or profound things about which to laugh. Life becomes a flatland, with the death of a light entertainer as noteworthy as the death of a village, or a rainforest, or a star. Oh, wait, that's where we are, isn't it?

'It's only a comic novel, a work of light entertainment, not a philosophical treatise. Douglas Adams wasn't purporting to offer an accurate worldview in THHGTHG.'

Really? So why, then, on certain websites that promote a philosophical viewpoint, do we find this quote?

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

I read this and smirk. But after the smirk has vanished, what remains?

42. That's what.

Only 42.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2014 2:40 PM GMT

Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion can Lead to a Lifetime of Success
Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion can Lead to a Lifetime of Success
by James Bach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kindred spirits meet over an ocean of autodidactic experience, with ne'er a seagull in sight, 10 April 2013
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James Bach is a computer expert and pioneering software tester. I don't know what that means, except that he obviously has brains to burn. What I do know is that his father Richard Bach wrote a novella called Jonathan Livingstone Seagull that is considered a spiritual classic. I haven't read it, don't intend to, and don't need to in order to appreciate this buccaneering book by his son.

Like many of us (including me), James Back did not flourish in a traditional academic environment and subsequently achieved the bulk of his learning outside it. What sets him apart from most is that he has invested serious reflection on how he has achieved this and formed his findings into 'heuristics', experience-based techniques for learning. Along with autobiography, this is most of what his book contains.

I give it four stars for many reasons. It is bold; not many people create their own metaphor for true education ("buccaneering")! It is interesting and easy to read. It is practical, with little-to-no theory-laden pronouncements. More than practical, it is transformational, by which I mean that not only does Bach narrate his own metamorphosis from dropout to exert, he provides plenty of hints as to how we may achieve the same. Parts of it feel very 'self-helpish' but in a good way.

Part of its charm is also a weakness. Bach writes as if no one has ever spoken, written or thought about self-regulated learning before. Concepts like metacognition, self-efficacy, and andragogy, as formally discussed, seem foreign to him. He writes as if he's discovering it all not only FOR himself but BY himself. Hence, his opinions can read at times as fresh, ultra-pragmatic, and radical, or, by turns, as a tad naive and patchy. But what I won't do is accuse him of amateurism since: (1) he is indeed a "lover of" learning, and (2) it would be foolish to criticise him for being something be neither claims to be nor wants to be i.e. an academic educationalist.

This book is prime reading for those whose experience of the one-size-fits-all, conveyer-belt, exam-driven, state education system sucked. It is also handy for those who would like some tips on what we now call 'study skills'. Who knows, maybe the odd academic might value it as a case study in reflective practice or experiential learning. Buccaneers can dream on, too.

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
by Stuart Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A playful look at the science of play, 9 April 2013
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Most books I've read about play approach it via (academic) sociology, (gaming) technology or (educational) psychology. Brown does something different. He takes a biological approach, as befits his background and credentials. He examines play from an evolutionary and developmental viewpoint, a heavy-sounding agenda, but one that Brown makes feel unexpectedly fresh and light. He achieves this by mixing his facts with personal narrative, photo sequences, assessment instruments and applications aplenty.

Here are some of the book's key concepts that struck me.

Play properties. With reticence, Brown provides a list of the necessary ingredients of 'true play': it must be apparently purposeless, voluntary, and possess inherent attraction, freedom from time, a diminished consciousness of self, improvational potential, and continuation desire (17).

Play drive. In the animal kingdom, those who play the best, survive the best (31). Play allows pretend rehearsal for the challenges of life, and increased social skills. In fact, play makes us smarter. There is a positive link between brain size / frontal cortex development and play. During play, the brain engages in 'simulations' and creates connections that did not exist before. Brown draws on the biology of "neoteny" to explain human primacy among mammals (55-58): we spend longer as children, therefore play longer, therefore are smarter.

Play deficit. Just as sleep deprivation leads to ill health, so play deficiency can lead to mental illness (43). Play can counteract depression (6); continuing play can prevent its recurrence (151). Brown has studied depressed women who were successfully treated through distance running (214).

Play state. Brown argues that play is essentially a state of mind rather than an activity (60) although movement can help us get into this state (84, 150, and 213-4). A play state consists in openness to novelty and risk (173). As I anticipated, Brown relates this play state to Csikszentmihalyi's 'flow' experience (17). He also relates it to another of my favorite thinker's ideas: Joseph Campbell's 'bliss' (202-4, see also 213 and 118).

Play personality. Brown proposes eight archetypes that offer us a chance to analyse our own play style - joker, kinesthete, explorer, competitor, director, collector, artist/creator and storyteller (65-70). I love the idea that there are multiple ways to play, and that each is an expression of our personality, neither right nor wrong.

Play types. There is no one way to play. Play can involve body and movement, imagination, social interaction, friendship and belonging, rough-and-tumble (are you listening out there, all you mothers with sons?), celebration and ritual, storytelling and narrative, transformation and creativity (83-94).

Play benefits. Brown claims that play enhances memory (100) and produces a right attitude towards life (114, 174). In the workplace, play can increases emotional intelligence (32), creativity and innovation (134), and aids in skills mastery (141).

Play history. This was a new one to me. Brown uses this method to enable people to get back to that natural sense of playfulness we had as children. He provides some useful advice on how to go about this task (206-210 - see also 26, 63, 152).

Play spirituality. Drawing on Darwinist and Hindu concepts, Brown suggests that the universe itself is playful (44-5). This reminded me of the medieval notion of 'ludus amoris' or divine play.

If I have to criticise, then there are two points to note. Throughout the book Brown interacts with and quotes from an amazing number of primary sources, most of whom are experts in the field with whom he has worked. Apart from a list of acknowledgements at the back, there are no references, footnotes, endnotes or equivalents. Yet although I drool over such details, and missed their absence, I must ask myself, would their inclusion have jammed and jolted the playful flow of my reading experience?

Secondly, I sense that Brown is at his weakest when facing the dark side of play. Brown has a simple and repeated method of dispensing with evidence that play may be addictive, violent, manipulative or selfish. He classifies such play as "not really playing" (178 - 182, 193). Hay-presto, the problem vanishes. For me, this is too easy a turn. If play prepares the brain for evolutionary struggle and adaptation, then it must contain all the elements of life itself, not just the nice parts of it.

You can see the author in action in a TED Talk called "Play is more than fun". This provides a good summary of the book, but, as always, the book is way better.

Fun Inc.: Why games are the 21st Century's most serious business
Fun Inc.: Why games are the 21st Century's most serious business
by Tom Chatfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A workmanlike account of how video games might change the world, 8 April 2013
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I found the subtitle of this book is misleading in four ways, but that might just be my bad. Firstly, Charfield deals with video games here, not games of other kinds. Second, he does not focus much on their psychology or sociology, the 'why' of the title, but their 'what'. Third, the trends he traces are in their infancy, they are becoming, they 'are' not yet. And fourth, 'business' might imply a narrow fixation on work; Chatfield roams wider here, without in any way getting into the area of how-to, so abandon hope of business tips if you entre here.

As an author on the subject of video games, Chatfield is informed, immersed and balanced. He know his subject inside out, loves what he writes about, has reflected deeply upon it, but is able to tease out weaknesses and threats. His writing style leans toward the unsmiling, which is fitting for a book on 'serious' gaming. There are ample sources cited (books, articles, reports, presentations, magazines, websites, and games). I didn't appreciate his habit of quoting these without direct references, but that's my equivalent of OCD.

Since this is the this edition's first review on Amazon UK the best service I can provide is to give potential buyers and other interested parties a taste of what each chapter holds, as their names don't help much.

Chapter 1: The fun instinct. Chatfield offers a flash history of games in general, the work/play dichotomy that we've lived with up until now, and an examination of that slippery word 'fun'.

Chapter 2: Technology and magic. Chatfield reminisces on the brief history of videogames.

Chapter 3: A license to print money. Chatfield weighs the business and profit of the games industry, including social and casual gaming. "The most successful games of all are those that come closest to real life, not in terms of ever more expensively produced realistic sounds and images, but in terms of the range of social action and opportunities for expression they offer... [Gaming] is not only the world's fastest growing medium, but also the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect twenty-first-century consumers." (ps. 37, 38)

Chapter 4: A beautiful science. This quality chapter covers the concepts of flow/optimal experience, the avatar, the hero's journey model and other goodies (e.g. the four motivations of gamers, and the four emotions released during play). Csikszentmihalyi's concept of 'flow' is never far away in this book, or in others covering similar material. Ditto Joseph Campbell.

Chapter 5: Dangerous playground. Chatfield faces the charges of game violence and addiction, and makes a strong defensive case for their prosocial status.

Chapter 6: The Warcraft effect. Far from being "cultish", games such as WoW encourage shared experience and a life "thick with obligations, judgments and allegiances", even testing and training in leadership qualities in a totally leveled or meritorious (virtual) world.

Chapter 7: Clouds and flowers. This beautiful chapter presents game creation as a complex art form, a medium worthy of pride and excellence, capable of producing profound aesthetic experiences.

Chapter 8: Second lives. Chatfield examines the interaction and convergence of the game-playing world with real life so that traditional dichotomies - games and movies/music, product and mindset, work and leisure, escape and engagement, one's actual and virtual selves - are overcome.

Chapter 9: Serious play. Forget the Lego; instead Chatfield application of game design to a variety of "serious' activities", from research in the social sciences, to motivation theory, to economics and money. Chatfield includes an excellent description of what we now call the 'gamification' of a product and illustrates it with YouTube (163-5).

Chapter 10: Beyond fun. This amounts to a grim but necessary excursion into non-funny worlds where games are making an impact: politics, the military, medicine and education. I particularly appreciate Chatfield's mild criticism of political lobbyists and charity workers who create non-game games that avoid fun due to their subject matter, and end up avoiding engagement too (185-6).

Chapter 11: Future Inc.? Chatfield end with a somewhat fuzzy, open-ended look (what else?) at the technologies, controversies and possibilities of the future.

Can I say something anal in conclusion? This book would have succeeded in collecting five, full points if it had subheadings and a bit of bite (aka Jane McGonigal). The material in each chapter is insightful and informed, but all the different topics meld together into one, seamless splurge. Part of my purpose in writing a review like this was to enable my brain to pull those pieces apart.

If you want to get a taste of Chatfield's style and concerns, you might want to listen to his TED Talk, entitled "7 ways games reward the brain" (TEDGlobal 2010).

The A to Z of Nietzscheanism (The A to Z Guide Series)
The A to Z of Nietzscheanism (The A to Z Guide Series)
by Carol Diethe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It was the best of books, it was the worst of books., 4 Mar. 2013
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I've been waiting for a decent dictionary of Nietzsche for some time. Continuum Philosophy Dictionaries promised to publish one in 2011, written by Gregory Moore, but that project seems to have come to nothing. Then, by accident, I stumbled across this. Hurrah!

All went well until I received the book, and opened it.

It is essentially a collection of shortened Wikipedia-style articlettes on the life, times and obvious doctrines of Nietzsche, along with an entry on every other thinker who bares the thinnest of connections to Nietzsche, Nietzsche's philosophy, or Nietzsche's milieu. That makes for a lot of space-filling, dead weight in the book.

In fact, the entries are more basic than their Wikipediaen counterparts. Analysis and interaction with ideas is minimal; there is only intention to state and reference. At its best - and at my most generous - I admit that the book has a decent internal referencing system whereby every entry word is printed in bold throughout. For a Nietzschean novice, it's a starter, with an undemanding glossary and mention of blatantly obvious secondary sources/further reading.

I don't usually like to comment on the quality of the paper or binding in a book I review. That seems somehow petty. But here, I'll make an exception. I'm scared to fully open the thing in case it cracks; it makes groaning noises when I read it. It's not worth a quarter of what I paid for it new.

Well, at least they published with the best of intentions. Full marks for that, or in this case, two. Plus, I smiled to see entries on Dance, Mask, Whip and Syphilis, in that order. And so there should be.

Peter R Sedgwick's 'Nietzsche: The Key Concepts' still stands triumphant as the closest entity to a Nietzsche dictionary I've encounter yet. Please read my review of it to find out why.

The Magus (Vintage Classics)
The Magus (Vintage Classics)
by John Fowles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.17

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meet the granddaddy of alternate reality games, 4 Mar. 2013
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I read this for two reasons. I was forced to study The French Lieutenant's Woman at college and ended up loving it - especially its play with language, sympathies and endings - despite my best intentions. And I'd heard that the excellent 1997 film The Game was taken in part from The Magus. In fact, Fowles' working title for it was The Godgame. Both book and film pivot around an over-privileged, under enlightened man called Nicholas (as does the BBC's excellent 1988 mini-series The One Game).

There's a film version of The Magus, staring Michael Caine in the lead role. Not a lot of people know that. The word on the street is that it's dire. I think The Magus would make a magnificent short series for TV, maybe over five or six hour-long episodes. You'd need at least this amount of screen time and chew-over time to get your head around it.

I usually don't like books of the what-the-heck-is going-on variety. Neither do I appreciate the art-for art's-sake genre, nor its close cousin, the look-how-smart-I-am. But I loved this. I just don't really know what its all about, that's all. Now, I only finished it after a marathon stint last week, but here are my first reactions.

I liked the central character, Nicholas Urfe. I'm not sure you're supposed to like him; he's a bit of a classist cad. But Fowles so well describes his history, thought-processes and torments that you can't help but empatise. And Fowles takes his time with Nicholas. In many novels, I wonder why the protagonist doesn't think or act in ways that are obvious to me. Here, every time I wondered why Nicholas doesn't do a certain thing, he then goes on to do it.

As my estimation, yea affection, for Nicholas grew, so my aversion to his mentor-figure, the magus of title, grew too. At first, enigmatic. Then remarkable. Then mezmerizing. (Pardon the in-joke.) Then terrifying. Then, finally, repellent. I have often wished that some Merlin-type figure would come and initiate me into the deeper mysteries of life, the universe and everything. Now, after reading this, I think I would tell him to stick it.

The book is one long puzzle. There is action and interaction, twists within twists, and blind alleys aplenty. It's a detective novel. It's a conspiracy theory, Dan Brown for grown-ups. It's a romance, a rite-of-passage with a vengeance, a literal psycho-drama, a multiple Greek drama. It has philosophical aspects and occultist shades. It's as funny as tartarus. It's what Consumer Recreation Services would do if run by Jung, de Sade and Wagner.

It's a literary game. How it ends is up to you.

All I know for sure is that I want to play it again.

No higher recommendation from me than that.

The Player Of Games: A Culture Novel (The Culture)
The Player Of Games: A Culture Novel (The Culture)
by Iain M. Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sci-fi look at games that doesn't leave you feeling played, 19 Feb. 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?

The True Game
The True Game
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.87

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Part novel, part self-help book, wholly fantastic!, 1 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The True Game (Paperback)
This was the first post-Tolkien tome I tackled as a misspent youth, relearning a love of literature after the horrors of high school. It has stayed with me all this time, big style. Why? It brought together in one novel entities that before lived in distinct parts of my brain. Such as? Sci-fi and fantasy. Concepts and narrative. Talents and journey. Reality and play, truth and game. 'True game' indeed.

I even wrote a blog about it - [...]

Deep, I know, for an Amazon book review, or one about a kids' novel anyway. But that's the point of 'true game' thinking. Don't separate things out. Join them up and see what happens. That's what Tepper does here to such magnificent effect.

If you'd like to know if there is any basis for this type of thinking, please take a look at the product link. Finite and Infinite Games

Sword in the Stone (Essential Modern Classics) (Collins Modern Classics)
Sword in the Stone (Essential Modern Classics) (Collins Modern Classics)
by T. H. White
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Ten thousand black-tongued curses on this book's Merlin!, 1 Jan. 2013
I saw the Walt Disney version of this as a young boy and thought it ridiculous then. I wanted something deep, mythical, and spine chilling. I wanted a Merlin who was a cross between the prophet Elijah and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Instead, I watched a muddle-headed idiot talk to cutsie animals, they being, I assumed, his closest neighbours in terms of IQ.

Thus I first experienced the 'Merlin-as-eccentric-old-boff' portrayal. Maybe the book would be better. WRONG! Please take me literally when I say that the only thing good about the whole 'The Once and Future King' saga is its title. It constitutes one large attempt to piss in the face of the Arthurian legend. I merely focus in on 'The Sword in the Stone' as it is White's vision of Merlin that I find most repellent.

Do not even go there. Where instead? Well, that's why I've bothered to write this review. I want to provide alternatives.

IMHO the best lengthy, literary portrayal of Merlin hails from Stephen L Lawhead's Pengragon Cycle. Here we get a brilliant telling of Merlin's parentage, training, madness and mission. Lawhead skilfully weaves together strands such as Merlin's Atlantian origins, his bardic training, and his dealings with the 'little folk' and Christian priests. At the end, you know the guy, and you want to know the guy.

Two other notable Merlins are light and darkness. C S Lewis has an intriguing Merlin in 'That Hideous Strength', the final book in the Space Trilogy (far superior to the syrupy Chronicles of Narnia). Then there is Robert Nye's Merlin, part anti-Christ, part proto Carry On actor.

As for the flat screen, you can't beat Nicol Williamson in the movie Excalibur. Or, if modern adaptations are more your thing, try Patrick Malahide in the 1988 British TV serial drama 'The One Game'.

But whatever you do, leave White alone I beg you.
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