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Book Review: Player of Games by Iain M. Banks 
21st-Jul-2013 08:37 pm
The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first read it, over a decade ago, Player of Games was not my favorite Culture novel. In fact, it was my second least-favorite, ranking just above Excession. Not that it was a bad book, by any means, but I felt that, in the Empire of Azad, Banks had created a ridiculous caricature of a xenophobic, militaristic, authoritarian, sexist society, and used it as a rather smug way of proving the moral superiority of the Culture.

I don't find the Empire of Azad nearly so ridiculous any longer. I still think there are a few places in which Banks over-eggs things a bit in terms of convincing the reader that the Azadians are really horrible, but overall, they're entirely plausible.

More importantly, I see the book less as a smug exercise in demonstrating the superiority of the Culture than as an attempt to address two philosophical objections to post-scarcity societies like the Culture: first, the idea that in such societies, life lacks purpose because people don't have to struggle for existence; and second, the idea that a peaceful, consensus-driven society like the Culture will always be defeated by a warlike authoritarian society because the inhabitants of the warlike society have greater will and fortitude in defending their ideas. It's still preaching the choir (at least for a reader like me), but at least it's a more complex point than, "Genocide, torture, and sexism are bad, okay?"

I still don't think that this will end up being my favorite Culture novel when I've finished this re-read, but it's a better book than I'd given it credit for. I'm really curious to see whether my reaction to Excession will change, but I've got a few books to read before I get there.

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22nd-Jul-2013 03:57 am (UTC)
The thing I really like about Player of Games is the way it ties together a lot of Culture themes, in a way that I think stands up well with the future books.

Do humans (or other sapients) matter in a machine society? Yes, because context matters--- a machine wouldn't have the same impact. This might not be an answer which is true, but it's one which is comforting. :) But this is counterbalanced by Gurgeh himself being more or less just a playing piece.

Can a utopia make war? This is something that comes up a lot in the Culture books, the moral ambiguity of doing wrong to try to make right. The Culture proves it's willing to get its hands dirty in many ways.

These are the points you bring up too. But there's also a thread which I didn't feel got enough play in other books, but it's there--- the Culture needs workers but doesn't want to force them to work. So instead the environment (up to and including the ways AIs are created) is instead shaped to produce the sort of workers they need. Drones who are happy making war, or drones who are happy being domestics. Even with some randomness providing an exit: is this a free society, or just a slave state in denial? Is Gurgeh's blackmailing really an aberrant case, or the slip that gives away the whole game?

But, I must admit I'm also fond of this book partially because it was the first culture book I read (from the library), and Consider Phlebas was never going to make the top of the list.

22nd-Jul-2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
That's a really interesting point - this may be the only book that really addresses the fact that Special Circumstances, in particular, can't always function as the kind of all-volunteer free-and-open source war and diplomacy operation that it sometimes appears to be. I'll have to keep an eye out for that in future books.
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