The Player of Games is the second book in Iain Banks’ Culture series, notable for its mix of hard science fiction, world building, and socio-political commentary. In the distant future, humankind has left its home planet to become an intergalactic species – colloquially referred to as the Culture – living aboard giant spaceships and ring-shaped habitats carved from space debris. Machines have developed sentience and govern all aspects of Culture life in generally benevolent fashion. Gene-fixing has altered biological constitution in myriad ways; intelligence has increased by many orders of magnitude, diseases have been all but eradicated, and lifespans mirror those of erstwhile gods. Sex-swapping has become commonplace, with individuals experimenting numerous times over the course of a lifetime. Glandular implants allow one to consciously secrete mood and performance enhancing hormones, while the human body as a whole has become capable of autonomous structural modifications befitting the space-faring nature of life.
Banks conceived the Culture as a post-capitalist, anarchic-progressive society where all enjoy equal status, nobody goes hungry, and crime is a relative unknown. Money and ownership have probably been abolished, gender hierarchies more clearly so, and knowledge is freely available as a shared heritage to all citizens. The Culture enjoys general primacy among neighboring civilizations on account of its advanced technology, employing a combination of soft power and more overt show of force, and usually in that order. The justification given in Consider Phlebas, the first book of the series, is that without this expansionist approach dressed up as altruism, to bring “culture” to the unwashed masses scattered across the stars, the Culture and its sophisticated utopian ideology would lose its reason to exist. To a self-proclaimed beacon of enlightenment, the perceived primitiveness of others can only appear as an eyesore and a prickly reminder that societies elsewhere can function by drastically different standards; which realization in turn forces the standard-bearer to look inward and inspect whether their convictions are truly as unassailable as once thought. The turmoil resulting from this introspection is usually not sustainable for an advanced civilization, instead making it even more belligerent and convinced of its messianic, manifest destiny.
In such a post-scarcity world, where machines do all the work, people, freed from the tedium of holding down a job, can choose to do the things that make them happy. A popular activity practiced across the Culture is playing games that pit individuals or groups of individuals in a showdown of mental prowess. The more renowned players are held in the highest esteem, invited for competitions across the galaxy which routinely attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands. In The Player Of Games, Jernau Morat Gurgeh is one such celebrity, widely acknowledged as the finest player of the time. Writing dissertations on game-theory, giving lectures at universities, and enjoying flings on the side, his is a life of the intellect and gentle indolence, until he is contacted by Culture higher-ups for a challenge more befitting his talents.
Across the galaxy is the planet Ea, home to the Empire of Azad. An advanced civilization in its own right but still many rungs below The Culture in the interstellar pecking order, its distinguishing characteristic is the exceedingly complex strategy game of Azad. Every aspect of Azadian life is governed by the game; usually played for the highest stakes, the game is a metaphor for life, and a primal contest of wills for survival and dominance. As Gurgeh is to discover, the Empire runs by a philosophy diametrically opposite to the Culture: the elites keep the have-nots on a leash, corruption, destitution, and barbarism are rife, and xenophobia and eugenics work in tandem to preserve the status quo.
Banks portrays these two inimical ideologies as the quintessential clash of civilizations. In his view, the Culture is at the zenith of its prowess, a behemoth capable of withstanding assaults on multiple fronts and shrugging them off like so many mosquito bites; more pertinently, however, with every bite, the enemy imbibes a little more of the Culture’s lifesblood, changing by degrees from within, until the difference between him and his foe doesn’t seem as pronounced as it once did. Banks’ Culture, then, is the perfect virus, intent on assimilation through infection rather than outright annihilation; its docile civilian exterior lulls its opponents into complacency, blind to the cold and incisive technological apparatus girding it behind the scenes, skilled at playing the long game and willing to absorb localized reverses in anticipation of the lasting victory to inevitably come.