The Player of Games
As I mentioned in my review of Consider Phlebas, the ﬁrst installment in Iain M. Banks' much-lauded Culture series, that book put me off reading more Culture books for over a year. I liked the setting, the (vaguely Douglas Adams-esque) humour and wit, the Culture itself (particularly the explorations of its more problematic implications). I didn't like the disjointed, episodic plot or the bland POV character.
Fortunately, The Player of Games - the second installment in the Culture cycle - has everything I liked about the ﬁrst book, with nearly none of what I disliked.
Given that the Culture is a post-scarcity society in which nobody is oppressed and everybody can have more or less anything they could possibly want, it's obviously a bit of a challenge to write interesting stories about its people. In Phlebas, this problem was neatly elided by simply writing about one of its enemies instead. In Player, the POV character Jernau Gurgeh is, in fact, a Culture citizen. He's a bored game aficionado - his entire life has revolved around playing games (ranging from board games to computer simulations), and he's one of the very best game-players the Culture has (…apart, of course, from the Minds, but pitting Minds against humanoids would hardly be fair). Unfortunately, he's grown so very bored; his games lack any meaning and any consequence. Many of them were originally devised in cultures where winning and losing had actual consequence (ranging from ﬁnancial transaction to bodily mutilation), and he questions if playing them in the Culture has somehow diminished their meaning. When he gets an opportunity (by way of a manipulative robotic drone associate of his) to attain a perfect win in one of his specialty games (an accomplishment nobody else in the Culture ever managed), he opts to cheat. And to avoid disgrace (never trust a manipulative robot), he joins Contact, the branch of the Culture dedicated to … well, contact … to visit an alien empire in which the entire political system is based around the (extremely complicated) game of Azad. This game is not only taken seriously - the entire empire is named after the game. Contact will even arrange for him the opportunity to take part in the game, although nobody expects him to last very long. The top Azadian players have trained most of their lives.
And this game has so great consequences that it's debatable whether it can even be called a "game": It decides the leadership of the Empire.
The Azadian empire is basically a cartoonish caricature of everything that's wrong, ugly and sinister about Western society. It's essentially the Anti-Culture: Brutal, crude, strictly hierarchical, sexually repressive and racist, it seems to have no redeeming qualities except for the fact that it has somehow managed to spawn a few decent individuals from its revolting cesspit of a society. Gurgeh is very much a ﬁsh out of water in such an environment; for most of his stay there, he has trouble even comprehending the level of oppression the Azadian elite visits upon its subjects. I liked the exploration of how incomprehensible certain social concepts must be to someone who's lived their entire lives in a sheltered utopia - and how difficult it can be for such a privileged individual to actually understand the less-fortunate. And, just as much, how difficult the inverse can be: Just as Gurgeh cannot comprehend why anyone would possibly want to organize a society as stupid and cruel as the Azadian empire, the Azadians (those of them allowed any real knowledge about such things) cannot comprehend how the utopian Culture can even exist.
The plot, this time, doesn't meander and spawn ten thousand unresolved arcs. It's downright tight. The characters are relatable - Gurgeh himself has ﬂaws, passions, doubts, wishes, moments of incomprehension. His life involves people (particularly a very old robot) that he seems to genuinely care about. It's, consequently, easy to care about him. I didn't just want him to make it out of the story's nasty twists alive, I also wanted his friends Yay and Chamlis to see him again.
The one thing I disliked was the torture scenes towards the end of the book. They did make me despise the Azadians even more, so I suppose they did their narrative duty.