A thoroughly delightful book. _The Player of Games_ is intelligently written, fast paced, and very playful. The book takes Gurgeh, master game player, from his peaceful, utopian home in the Culture to the primitive Empire of Azad. Among other things, Azad is a satirical image of empires, both in the present and the space-opera future. At times it reads like Gulliver's Travels, at other times like a crossover between a Culture novel and a Star Wars or Honor Harrington book.
As usual, Banks creates vivid and memorable characters, along with dramatic locales and action set pieces. Who wouldn't want to have long Sunday conversations with Chamlis Amalk-ney, or see the slums of Groasnachekor and visit the Fire Planet Echronedal? It could all be made into a very nice RPG-splat book, and makes for addictive reading. And while this isn't a pure book of ideas like _The Man Without Qualities_, everything in it rests on a solid bedrock of intelligence. Consider the following aside by one of the characters:
"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this!
Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."
I just loved this part. It mirrors a thought I had in college during one of the intro philosophy courses, but that I could never find mentioned in any of the course literature on free will. Even in small, throw away sentences like the above, Banks shows more acuity than the vast majority of writers who actually study these subjects.
There are a few weak points to the book. One is due to the central conceit of the novel, the actions of an utterly brilliant game player. Since the author is not an utterly brilliant game player, he can only refer to the central action of the book from a distance. This becomes more and more noticeable as the book progresses. And of course, this being a Banks novel, the Beige Team wins in the end, and is generally superior through out. It is kind of like Ender's Game for the MetaFilter set. :) Still, given all the delightful crunch and sparkle, we can forgive Banks for that.
Post Mortem, ~3 years later One way I judge a book is by the size of the skull pile that it accumulates. For instance, reading Iris Murdoch has ruined many books for me, either because they come across as a pale shadow of Murdoch's work, or because the ideas in her work have sort of pre-emptively critiqued and dissassembled the new story that I am reading. The Player of Games has a collected a veritable mountain of skulls, and has ruined dozens of other books, movies, and tv programs for me. It's assumed a sort of archetypal role, and I'd say that I mentally reference Azad in about 5%-10% of the media products I experience. It really is a brilliant humanist? leftist? critique and summation of much of our culture. In light of that, I'm retroactively raising my review to 5 stars.
Post Mortem, ~3.5 years later While thinking of explanations and metaphors for something else, I re-invented the symbolism of Echronedal. I'd initially passed the planet over as just a really neat bit of sci-fi world building, rather than as a symbol of malevolently wasteful empire.