A tale of two civilizations: one, the hegemony known as the Culture, the other, a repressive social order, the Azad.
The Culture, an AI-ruled Utopia, is cold and sterile, echoes of [a:Isaac Asimov|16667|Isaac Asimov|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1341965730p2/16667.jpg]'s [b:Foundation|29579|Foundation (Foundation, #1)|Isaac Asimov|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320416085s/29579.jpg|1783981]. The citizens flutter about in a pointless daze, seeking the next entertainment or distraction of their bohemian lives. Death is rare and written laws are unnecessary as the AIs provide for a society free of conflict and crime. Drop into this imagined Shangrila, Gurgeh, the Player of Games. He is a biologically boosted master of all things gaming. If the social structures themselves have not done it, Gurgeh's monomaniacal pursuit of winning strips him of all but the basic elements of humanity. He has fleeting relationships, cheats, is bored.
In pursuit of something more meaningful in his life, Gurgeh journeys to a remote empire to play a massive game. Both the game and the empire are called Azad. I imagine Azad as the social order Solzhenitsyn described in
[b:The Gulag Archipelago Abridged |691665|The Gulag Archipelago Abridged An Experiment in Literary Investigation|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348058458s/691665.jpg|21957782], a people ruled by the rule of force and repression. But in a novel simplification that can only happen in SF books, the civic discourse of Azad, the society, is centered on Azad, the game. In a continuing tournament that pervades the life of every citizen, the game's champion is crowned emperor(think Bobby Fischer as world chess champion and president), in a cultural framework that is not unlike March Madness. Gurgeh enters this milieu as an outsider given little chance to go beyond the first round. But, of course, he beats the odds. Isn't that what happens in gaming stories? Check out [b:Ready Player One|9969571|Ready Player One|Ernest Cline|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333576871s/9969571.jpg|14863741] or [b:Ender's Game|375802|Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)|Orson Scott Card|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1364033163s/375802.jpg|2422333].
Despite all the stylistic flourishes that [a:Iain Banks|7628|Iain Banks|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1304977070p2/7628.jpg] is able to imbue the text, the novel left me cold. First, utopias are inherently uninteresting, where, devoid of human suffering, the social order is so dissociated from me as a person, making it extremely difficult to relate. Second, repressive societies leave me cold. The author resorted to graphical depictions of torture that I felt were gratuitous. Maybe if this was more true to life as in Solzhenitsyn's account. Or he could have tried the appraoch to depicting repression in [a:Frank Herbert|58|Frank Herbert|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1168661521p2/58.jpg]'s [b:God Emperor of Dune|42432|God Emperor of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #4)|Frank Herbert|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327131560s/42432.jpg|3634588]. Third, though Banks tries hard to make the character of Gurgeh interesting, he is not a likeable fellow. His emotions lie too far below the surface to really tug at my heart. Finally, games are cold, and the game of Azad even colder. To feel the passion, I need to know the game and experience the challenge first-hand. But Gurgeh's internal struggles were not mine, and neither were his chosen actions.
Well-written but with unlikeable characters and backstory. I give this an ambivalent 3 stars.