Publisher: Orbit (1988)
ISBN: 0 708 88309 5
Précis: The Culture - a human/machine symbiotic society - has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh, Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game... a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life - and very possibly his death.
Summary: Gurgeh, at home on the Culture Orbital he resides on, has become bored with games. Almost always winning them, usually finessing them, he finds little to challenge him. His disaffection with affairs causes him to, with a drone's help, cheat at a game he is playing and also, through a friend, contact Contact about the possibility of them finding something interesting for him. The extra assistance, in the game, doesn't allow him to acomplish what he had hoped with the game, but it does give the drone that aided him sufficient evidence for blackmail purposes.
Which it quite happily procedes to do. Confonting Gurgeh with evidence that it has been watching him for some time now it threatens him with exposure of his cheating to the general populace. Something that would ruin his status as the player of games and result in social disaster for him. Grudgingly, and with a sense of doom about this, he conceeds to the drone's demands and uses his sudden desirability with Contact to try and get the drone readmitted into Special Circumstances.
Of course he can only pull this off by accepting the Contact's offer for him to go play a stunningly complicated game, called Azad. Provided with his own ship, a demilitarised warship from the Idiran war, he sets out for the two year journey - learning the game as he goes. At first unable to make much sense of it he, as the voyage progresses, gradually becomes more and more able at the game till he can play a full game.
Finally he arrives at the Empire of Azad and disembarks, preparing for the first game as well as enduring the various imperial meetings, social events and dinners that the Empire has put on for him as an invited guest. With a library drone as his primary companion he manages to pass the social hurdles he encounters and begins the first game. After almost ending in disaster he manages to make a brilliant come back from a nearly fatal position and gains entry into the second round of the games.
As he continues to win games embarrasment from the Empire, who had portrayed him as the best gamer player the Culture could produce - confident that they could beat him and thus embarras the Culture, culminates in an attempted assassination. Narrowly escaping harm he manages to continue wining the games till he is at last admitted into the final series of the games, to be played on another world symbolic to the Empire.
Having now attempted assassination, blackmail with a setup, a 'body wager' (or torture forfeit based on the outcome of the game) and various manipulations of game playing order - all to try and stop Gurgeh the Empire's beaureacrats try one more gambit, bribery in order to get Gurgeh to stop playing. Either avoiding, often with help, or refusing to submit to these events Gurgeh continues playing.
The games continue at the new location with Gurgeh continuing to defeat his opponents. This prompts a second assassination attempt which not only fails but brings the attempts to stop Gurgeh to the Emperor's attention. He orders all such attempts stopped, citing that certain subjects had sought to protect their emperor and, in doing so, had way over-stepped the mark.
Gurgeh's next few games progress in relative peace with him winning his way through to the final game with the emperor. Once there he finds the Emperor a very tough opponent, barely holding on to his own he desperately tries to understand the tactics being used. Finally, halfway through the second stage of the game he realises that the Emperor is using the game to simulate an attack on the Culture by the Empire. Once this becomes clear he begins to fight back, committing himself to playing the Culture line.
The game sways to and fro for some time till, on the second to last day, Gurgeh senses that the game is over - that the Emperor has been lead into a trap that will destroy/subvert his forces in the game. After an extremely strange conversation that night with the Emperor, play resumes. Only things are worryingly wrong. Gurgeh's companion drone reports that high tech equipment has been placed in the room, guards have been posted everywhere and during the night a state of martial law was declared.
The Emperor plays his cards, first attacking the drone. Then his soldiers attack the observing guests and finally he comes over to attack Gurgeh. After a short scrabble across the board, with flames begining to creep into the castle, Nicosar swings his sword high to strike Gurgeh - only to have the blade removed by the very much alive drone Flere Imsaho. Nicosar then staggers off and finds a laser pistol. Flere Imsaho projects a field around Gurgeh to protect him from the heat and also to protect him from the laser pistol Nicosar has now found.
Nicosar fires and manages to bounce the beam off the field, which Flere Imsaho temporarily turned to a mirrorfield, and shoots himself dead. Flere Imsaho then gets Gurgeh to sleep while they await the arrival of the ship and the passing of the fire.
Gurgeh awakens to find a devestated caste, now gutted and ruined by the passing of the fire. Flere Imsaho, now revealed to be a fully armed special circumstances drone and not the library drone it claimed to be, explains the depth to with Gurgeh has been manipulated and used - by both sides in the conflict. With a somewhat heavy heart he heads back home to the Culture and the Orbital he knows.
Comments: Of the Culture books this one, for me anyway, ranks as the most obvious of them. Throughout the book, and after having read 'Consider Phlebas', it was fairly clear exactly what the title was referring to and it's multiple levels of meaning. However once you put aside the fact that you know what the big punchline is going to be then the ride is extremely fun.
Of course the Empire of Azad is merely a more extreme version of capitalist society so the prosletyzing is slightly less than subtle too, but very effectively done. Even more impressive is that you don't doubt the existance of the Empire and the manner by which it holds itself together. Iain pulls off the feel of an oppressive and restrictive regime exceedingly well.
The other area this books scores in is the contrasting of the Culture against the Empire. In most of the other books the majority of the actions takes place in Culture space and while individuals disagree with it's policies their way of life is not usually that well contrasted against the Cultures. (After all how much do we know of the life on Heibrohre that Horza knew?) Here the Empire and the Culture are almost compared point for point, this is clearest in the argument/talk Gurgeh and Nicosar have on the night before the final day of the games.
Still, while it may be the least subtle of the Culture novels it is still a great read. And in terms of fleshing out exactly how the Culture works and what it's mores are, then it is well worth reading.