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|Imagine a society with technology so advanced that, not only
are everyone’s basic needs met, you could literally build whatever habitat
you wanted. And not in virtual reality, either...in the physical world.
In Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games Gurgeh is a citizen of such a society, called The Culture. He’s chosen a life of studying and competing at intellectual games and, as is the nature of main characters in such stories, is one of the very best. But he’s bored. Bored enough to fall into the web of The Culture’s “Contact” section, which takes care of The Culture’s diplomacy and intelligence gathering functions.
Contact is interested in Gurgeh because a competing civilization, the Empire of Azad, uses an almost incomprehensibly complex game to determine its citizens’ place in the society. The game so closely models Azadian philosophy and life that it is used as an entrance and promotion exam for the military, education, and civil service of the Empire. In fact, the winner of a tournament held every few years becomes emporer until the next go-round. Of course, the nature of the game (also called Azad) is such that it ensures each new Emporer will embody the ideals of Azadian culture.
Unfortunately, that ideal embraces cruel oppression, a joy in imperialistic expansion, and worse. Gurgeh’s stated role is to participate in the tournament to determine if an outsider can learn the game well enough to play at a respectable level, though his presence ends up being much more consequential.
The conflict in The Player of Games is one of moral extremes: cruel oppression versus enlightened coexistence. In the end the distinction becomes less clear as ends and means come into question, challenging the reader to judge The Culture and its actions. In light of its wonderfully crafted characters, engrossing plot, and societal themes I recommend The Player of Games without reservation.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.