While I’ve read a few of Banks’ non-sci-fi novels, none of them are as memorable as The Player of Games. The world that Banks has created here is truly original in many ways. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in 1988 and not 2008.
Gurgeh is the player and his renown for playing earns him an invitation from the shadowy hierarchy of his society. He is asked to take a long journey to another world and there play a game like no other. The game culminates in a life and death situation which Banks does well to spin out to the end of the novel although there is a certain amount of inevitability surrounding the ending which I thought a tad weak.
What impressed me more was the way that Banks uses the two worlds he has created to ask questions about our own society. It’s clear that the world Gurgeh visits is, in many ways, modelled on our own. And the ability you get as a reader to be outside looking in through Gurgeh’s experience is a valuable one. This is quintessential science fiction and Banks does it pretty well.
Much of what Gurgeh observes does not reveal the society he visits to be in any way one worth preserving. The reasons for its weakness are not explored. It is simply taken at face value, found wanting, and written off. There are no redeeming features, nothing we can learn from it and no one worth saving. It is, in fact, a perfect example how genocide is justified.
Gurgeh and his contemporaries do not dwell too much on the beliefs that underpin their moral stance. Right is right and wrong is wrong. There’s no reference on which to base this at any point. And so, if there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s that despite attempting to construct a world which transcends our own, we find it’s simply a postmodern reconstruction of ours where right is what you believe is right and that’s that.
The story spins along nicely though and it’s very readable. I very much enjoyed the worlds that Banks created and so while this didn’t satisfy on any deeply meaningful level, it was quite fun to read for the most part.