I started the Culture series by Ian Banks a little while ago. The first one was utterly disappointing. But I thought I’d give Player of Games a go. It wasn’t worth it, really.
It was a little more gripping, and I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. But ultimately, reading this stuff is like eating popcorn – what’s the point?
Player of Games follows … someone, I forget his name. He’s very good at games. An international super star, at all types. But then Banks has to cast around for some element of conflict, to drive the plot. This, fundamentally, is the problem with his setting – we have no idea what a multi-planet post-scarcity society might look like, but even assuming it’s possible, if there is no conflict, that leaves a writer who needs conflict to drive plot high and dry.
So Banks introduces a drone with a grudge at the Minds that kicked it out of the special service. It’s not much, but it’s enough to kick the plot along. Throw in a semi-plausible aspiration that an international super-star game player might have if offered the chance to cheat to win something incredible, and it’s enough to keep things rolling.
From there, our protagonist goes to another planet, where they all build their entire society around a very complex game. What is the game? Great question. I have no idea, despite having read the book, because Banks doesn’t tell us. He does tell us that the game is rich, and complex, and like life itself; but he only tells us, he never really shows us anything that might persuade us of that. So instead we have to rely on frustratingly vague third-hand accounts, of how the protagonist is feeling, when we get those. Assuming that ‘the game’ is really exciting and interesting (I’m unpersuaded), this is a bit like hearing a radio broadcast of a tennis match through a whisper game chain.
The final conflict Banks sets up is between the protagonist, representative of the peaceful calm of the Culture, and the cruel, hierarchical selfishness of the empire he visits. From there, some stuff happens but honestly it’s boring and hard to care about. If you like the other Culture books, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend this at all.