Synopsis: The post-scarcity Culture recruits their best game player to destabilize an expanding civilization that selects its rulers via an incredibly complex board/card/tabletop-war game.
Book Review: Banks is best known in the SF community for his creation of The Culture, an incredibly advanced post-scarcity civilization, and the series of books that take place within it. Player of Games isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the one that is considered the best entry point into the series. This book feels like it was written specifically to introduce people to The Culture. First we’re introduced to a typical citizen, and we get a typical day-in-the-life narrative to show us how these people live. World details and tech levels are displayed, and then this citizen is recruited to become the representative of the entire Culture to an alien civilization. Much of the conflict comes from the culture clash of this outsider navigating among strange people with strange ideas and customs, and every time there is a conflict not only do we learn how the alien civilization is structured, we also learn how The Culture is different in contrast. It’s pretty darn ingenious.
If this was just a tour of The Culture I’m not sure it would make an interesting book… you do need some story to get me excited. Fortunately, it is a lot more than just that. Yes, the novel does start out very slowly. The first few chapters drag on far longer than their word count would lead you to believe. Perhaps this was intentional, to get the reader to relate to the boredom and ennui of the titular protagonist, but it’s still a slog. It is, however, worth it. Once the central plot is engaged, the story really picks up, and it just keeps getting faster and better as it goes. Plots thicken, stakes are raised, and eventually hell is raised, bullets are flying, and everything is on fire.
More than that, though, this book reminded me that speculative fiction is the genre of Big Ideas. SF/F should be about something. Lots of times, it’s not. It’s just cool stories of interesting people doing exciting things. The Player of Games has a central thesis. I didn’t even realize that I had been starved of stories with a Big Idea until this novel gave me one and reawakened that thirst. It was wonderful, and I hope to not forget this again for a long time.
Dan Carlin often mentions the adage that civilizations ascend wearing wooden clogs, and descend wearing silk slippers. Meaning that only when life is hard and miserable do people struggle to make things better, and once a civilization is rich and secure it becomes weak, its people become lazy, and it declines. This is probably a perpetual fear of anyone living in a rich empire, but it’s hard not to take it seriously. One wonders, is it only by cruel strength, and the hard-bitten willingness to sacrifice the weak that people can advance? Is any great liberal society doomed to be out-competed and replaced by something leaner, meaner, and ruthless? The Player of Games asks exactly that question, pitting a rich, liberal society against a hungry, brutal one. And more to the point, it doesn’t do this by putting them in violent conflict, which would only resolve which civilization is better able to wage ware. It pits the ideals of the two societies against each other directly by abstracting those ideals into a high-stakes game that winnows out the weak and breaks the unworthy.
Book Club Review: For the reason stated in the previous paragraph, this is a very good book club book. There was a lot to talk about, much of it being very thought-provoking. Even outside of the central thesis, The Culture itself makes a fascinating topic of conversation (one of the reasons these books have become so popular, after all), and that along can keep a group going for quite a while. And while the beginning is slow, we didn’t lose any readers to it, because the kind of people that go to SF book clubs tend to also be the kind of people that have been gamers for ages, and so the promise of a book about an Uber-Game kept everyone engaged until things go going. :) Recommended.
Podcast Note: A friend of mine has a reaction-style podcast where he and a friend are reading through the entire Culture series together. He’s read it before, the friend has not. The three Player of Games episodes are 1, 2, 3. And the whole series can be followed at the Discord, or the RSS.