I wasn’t blown away with Consider Phlebas, the first book in the Culture novels; but a friend recommended Player of Games, and it was far more entertaining. It’s set at some later time after the Culture defeated the Idrians. The main character in Player of Games is Gurgeh, a professional game player. He’s studied every game and is a ranked master in some of the most challenging games. But, in a post-scarcity existence with hundreds of years to live one’s life, what happens when one wants something else?
Azad: The Game
What if there was a game played outside of the Culture, a grand game in which the winner became Emperor of an empire? Gurgeh is led in this direction. He forgoes his quiet life on a habitat, sort of like a ring world, and journeys out on a trip that takes years to the edge of the Culture’s domain. It reminded me a bit of Bilbo Baggins being uprooted from his hobbit hole and set forth on an adventure.
In the game of Azad, players can be tortured or killed. The stakes are high and unlike the Culture, the aliens are very hierarchical and aggressive. Their subjugation of members of their own species and other species they’ve enslaved, as well as their rampant capitalism and strict laws work as a mirror to show us an exaggerated version of humanity through the eyes of the Culture. At times it’s harsh.
Due to the complexity of the game, Gurgeh is not supposed to do well. There are players among the Azad who’ve spent their lives studying the game. As players lose, how they played determines what roles they fill in the new government.
Cold War Resonance
The game Gurgeh plays becomes a clash between the Culture and the Azad. The Culture’s player of games is seen as an existential threat to the dominion of the Azad. What happens if he advances? It reminds me of the 1980 Olympic hockey match between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Is it just a game or is it more than a game? That’s a question which is asked toward the end of the novel.
Beep Beep, Boop Boop
The Minds and drones in the Culture novels are wonderful. It’s fun seeing how these artificial intelligences work with their organic counterparts. Are they equal partners? Benign dictators? Master manipulators? They are full of humor and schemes as the humanoid populace luxuriate in their mostly carefree lifestyle.
Player of Games is a wonderful science fiction novel. It propelled me back into the Culture novels and it’s a book I’ve passed along to friends. Give it a read.