In The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, world-famous game player Jernau
Morat Gurgeh competes in an alien civilization’s tournament. The game is
central to the functioning of the society, so much so that they share the same
name–Azad. While the novel has its moments, they fail under the weight of a
For one thing, the setting makes Gurgeh almost unrelatable. His language,
culture and life history are barely explained (and contain inconsistencies
). Even his psysiology is foreign, though Banks at least acknowledges
this with some brief explanations about how Gurgeh can precisely regulate his
body chemistry. This alone wouldn’t preclude empathy, but he’s dropped into the
Empire of Azad–a setting that’s unfamiliar even to him. Between the alien
language, unrecognizable culture, and dearth of historical background, readers
have no frame of reference for understanding the protagonist.
Worse, Gurgeh never develops as a character. It’s easy (though disappointing)
to understand why: he doesn’t change because he doesn’t need to. While he’s
apparently traumatized after witnessing Azad’s sadistic subculture, that trauma
leads nowhere. He doesn’t need to reevaluate his priorities; he doesn’t need to
nurture any relationships. He just has to “be good at games” really hard and
then go home, unchanged.
There’s a time and place for a static and distant hero, but Player doesn’t
even make a decent space adventure. Banks offers promising concepts (e.g. a
truly gender-fluid society, a race with three sexes, and a man who excels at
any game you put in front of him) but doesn’t explore any of them. The
protagonist isn’t even likable: Gurgeh is jaded, dishonest, and arrogant. This
undermines even the simple thrill of victory over adversity.
The book has some strengths, though! Banks patiently reveals aspects of the
impossibly convoluted game of Azad (replete with room-sized playing areas and
living tokens), and it’s fun to consider how such an impossibly convoluted game
could be integrated into a society. Gurgeh’s antagonistic relationship with his
guide is also refreshing in its harshness. There’s no assurance of mutual
respect, and there’s no resolution. Finally, tucked away in the moments before
the final conflict, Gurgeh reflects the unspoken relationship that he’s
developed with his opponent. The emotion is surprisingly accessible, and it’s
impressively shattered in the emotional climax.
In short: The Player of Games is a simplistic adventure story where an
unlikable alien callously competes in a foreign competition, learning little
and caring less. The interesting concepts don’t sufficiently motivate the 350+
pages in between. While it’s possible that this all works better in the context
of Banks’ “Culture” series, I’m not interested in learning how.