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(I searched my archives and found an older review of The Player of Games. You can find that review here.)
Every now and then I read a book expecting nothing more than entertainment, and am instead challenged to examine my life and assumptions. The Player of Games is one such book.
The title of the book is what brought me in originally. I am a game-player. At one time or another I have played baseball, soccer, tournament-level chess, bowled in a league, played professional poker, and dabbled in the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. If you include parlor games such as Scrabble, few days go by where I don't play a game of some sort.
Banks' protagonist, Gurgeh, is a game player par excellence. He is a citizen of the Culture, a transhuman society that meets all basic needs, allowing its citizens to pursue their interests freely. Gurgeh has chosen to study and play games. As events unfold, Gurgeh is persuaded to travel to a distant star system, the Empire of Azad, is determined by the results of a grand tournament. The ultimate victor becomes Emperor, setting the tone and philosophy for the next Great Year.
Writing about games that don't exist is tricky business, but Banks' construction of the game of Azad as a literal translation of life in the Empire allow him to describe the action on two levels. When things go wrong in the game, the metaphorical weight of a society in decline bears down on the disadvantaged player.
While Gurgeh struggles to come to grips with the game, language, and culture of Azad, he must also deal with the machinations of his traveling companions, a library drone/interpreter/majordomo, and the ship that transported him on the last bit of his journey across the Galaxy. Neither sentient machine is as innocent as they seem, as befitting a mission of such import.
Some readers may prefer the action's climax to the denouement, but everyone who finishes The Player of Games will be richly rewarded for their time and energy.
Curtis D. Frye (email@example.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of nine books, including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books, and three online courses.