Sep 05 2008

The Player of Games

Published by at 6:21 am under Books

speculative fiction by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games is very different from and better than its predecessor in the Culture series, Consider Phlebas, which I also enjoyed. While Player is certainly speculative fiction, it is unusual in that it focuses on one ‘person’. Definitely not a space Opera like its predecessor and a very enjoyable read.

The nature and structure of the Culture is amorphous and never really described in detail, but is based on the proposition that energy and materials are plentiful and ‘computers’ have become sentient. These sentient machines perform many activities and responsibilities (seemingly?) in support of the humanoid people that make up the Culture. As a result, the people of the culture are very comfortable and all their basic needs are easily satisfied. They live on gigantic ‘orbitals’ and on gigantic space ships (+/- 1 billion per ship!) both of which are run by the intelligent machines. “Run by” is not quite right in that they ‘are’ intelligent machines with controlling ‘minds’ (computers). Property is not owned, just used as a person needs it. Clearly Utopian in this regard.

‘People’ remain at least somewhat relevant, but most pursue their interests be they scholarly, musical, artistic, or games (cerebral or physical, organized or not). People have been augmented biologically to have advanced capabilities, but are very recognizably human (can’t fly, can’t leap tall building, etc.). The intelligent machines which are treated as sentient each have a level of intelligence suitable to their job or role and some mingle socially with people. All information is available to everybody with the exception that what is in a brain or a mind is ‘private’ but all else is public. Pretty much egalitarian and non-militaristic. The Culture does have a “contact” organization that explores the galaxy in which the culture is located and both of the books have involved that organization.

So, the story: Culture meets “The Empire”. Empire is hierarchical, brutal, militaristic and somewhat less advanced; ownership is a key relationship; and a large divergence wealth and ‘comfort’ between the rulers and the ruled. Generally a grim place unless you are at the top. The Culture has been in very limited contact with the Empire and would like to see it fall apart or change but has apparently not acted to achieve that end.

This Empire uses a periodical tournament of an elaborate and complex game to determine who will be the emperor for the next six years (Sounds like the recent primaries, but the book was written in 1988). While the Culture has had contact with the Empire for some time, their exploratory arm has kept this contact secret (so much for everything is public knowledge). An expert game player is induced to learn this game and travel to the Empires capital and participate in such a tournament. That tournament and its surroundings is the heart of this tale. Doesn’t sound like much but it is.

The writing is excellent. At times, I was reminded of Gulliver’s Travels and once or twice a section reads like Dickens or Upton Sinclair. It also brought to mind Asimov’s Foundation series. One can imagine many analogies to the cold war; the “Free World” (remember that phrase) vs Communism. Or it could be utopia vs reality. Sufficiently ambiguous to be interesting.

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