Monday, October 24, 2005

50 Book Challenge #57: Player of Games

Iain Banks, author of freaky modern fiction, has an alter ego, Iain M. Banks, who writes SF. Most of these are set in a universe that includes the Culture, a propertyless paradise of genetically modified humanoids and artificially intelligent machines. I read one of his other Culture novels earlier this year and was underwhelmed, but multiple people recommended another one, Player of Games. Since much of the action takes place on a hierarchical, propertied world that has more in common with contemporary culture than does the Culture, it's a more nuanced display of the differences Banks is trying to emphasize between the systems.

Nutshell: Gurgeh (which I always read as Gurgle; not as bad as the city of Tai-Tastykake, but still unfortunate) is a professional gamer offered the chance by the Culture to travel to the Empire of Azad to take part in their massive Azad tournament. The game determines everything for them, including the identity of their emperor, and is itself a reflection of their society and its values. Gurgeh's simple mission grows complicated as he becomes immersed in the game and the culture of Azad, which is diametrically opposed to the Culture in every possible way. In a LeGuin-like twist, Azad has three sexes, with males and females both oppressed by apexes, the intermediary sex.

This was a decent bit of SF: less depressing than Consider Phlebas, and less predictable than Look to Windward. The moralizing gets a bit heavy-handed at times, and the ethical choices made by the Culture are only elliptically explored, but all in all it was a worthy outing.
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