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Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games

I wasn’t going to read another Culture novel quite so soon, but a chess/go friend of mine told me that I had to read this, so I did.

It’s about, no surprise, a world-class (I guess universe-class) game player, and, no surprise either, the massive political crisis he finds himself embroiled in. He’s introduced to basically the Best Game Ever, which in its complexity dwarfs the most complicated game you know, whether that is chess, go, or Advanced Squad Leader, and naturally his mission is to defeat a rival civilization at it.

It is actually much more interesting than my admittedly breezy explanation makes it sound. The plot itself is engaging although it’s not hard to tell where it’s going. The rival civilization pretty much defines itself by this game, which makes for a lot of interesting analogies between game-playing and life. Their relative barbarism compared to the Culture is also thought-provoking, as it comprises a mix of aspects that we as modern humans find abominably backward and ones that we share with them (but the far-future utopian Culture population finds just as barbaric).

But what I found most enjoyable was just the take on game-playing. Banks does an admirable job of portraying the different aspects of playing games seriously: the obsession with finding the truth in a position, and the paradoxical combination of fierce competitiveness where any attempt to seize the advantage is allowable and aesthetic appreciation for the development of the game such that the actual determination of the winner is almost unimportant.

Combine this with some cool plot twists and a wry sense of humor and you have a winner, at least as far as this game-playing novel-reader is concerned. Next up (at some point) is Use Of Weapons, which seems to be widely regarded as one of his best.