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Literature / The Player of Games

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The Player of Games is the second Culture novel by Iain M. Banks and the one that's generally considered the best introduction to the seriesnote . It tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, an expert game player, who is recruited/blackmailed by Special Circumstances into traveling to the Empire of Azad, a brutal regime where one's social rank is determined by playing the highly complex game of Azad.

The Player of Games provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdly High-Stakes Game:
    • Your rank in Azad is also your rank in the Azad Empire; when the actual betting gets involved between players, the stakes can get downright scary. Scary like having your genitals removed if you lose (or both you and your opponent both having your genitals removed if the two of you try to cancel the bet or, heaven forbid, tie).
    • Subverted for Gurgeh. As a guest of the Empire, he can't win any rank, and castration is meaningless since it'll just grow back. In fact, he seriously considers forfeiting to protect his opponent from a permanent castration. The final match with the Emperor is basically just an exhibition game - except that Flere-Imsaho has re-raised the stakes by telling the Emperor that if Gurgeh wins, the Culture is invading.
  • Auto-Kitchen: Every ship in The Culture, including the room-sized module that Gurgeh uses to travel to and from the planet, is capable of this. At one point Gurgeh's guest, also from the Culture, places a ridiculously complex order:
    "Module," Za said, sprawling out over the seat and looking thoughtful, "I'd like a double standard measure of staol and chilled Shungusteriaung warp-wing liver wine bottoming a mouth of white Eflyre-Spin cruchen-spirit in a slush of medium cascalo, topped with roasted weirdberries and served in a number three strength Tipprawlic osmosis-bowl, or your best approximation thereof."
    "Male or female warp-wing?" the module said.
  • Batman Gambit: What Special Circumstances' plan to topple the Empire of Azad boils down to. They worked out that Gurgeh will be able to beat the Emperor (who knows exactly how powerful the Culture are) at Azad, and task Flere-Imsaho with telling him that the unaware game-player is acting as the Culture's representative, and if he wins, they're invading (given that, under the normal rules of Azad, the winner of the tournament becomes Emperor). This was done with the expectation that he will Freak Out when his defeat looks inevitable, and sure enough, Nicosar goes nuts when it becomes apparent Gurgeh is about to beat him, destroying himself and the Empire's entire leadership in a panic. From there, embedded Special Circumstances agents can help ensure the Empire's collapse.
  • Bawdy Song: The Culture has no national anthem, and the first song that Ambassador Shohobohaum Za can think of is one of these, called "Lick Me Out" — which leads to it being played (sans lyrics) when Gurgeh arives on Azad. It could be argued that this isn't entirely unfitting, however.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: As always, the Culture's hat, and in this book, it's indicated by a scene at the end where Gurgeh realizes he plays like he's the Culture. As opposed to his opponent who plays like he's the Azadian Empire. While his Azadian opponent is consistently ruthless in his playing, Gurgeh's style involves a generally less aggressive attitude, but when he comes up against an opponent that's too smart to play him on his own terms, he has to play as the Culture Militant; geared up for war and ready to kick ass in the name of the greater good, with occasional bursts of ruthless sacrifice of his own pieces and relentlessly violent moves against his opponent. This is pretty much how the Culture (or at least Special Circumstances) acts toward its own people and other civilizations respectively.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction
    • The Azadians have three sexes: Males with testes and penis, an intermediate ("Apex") sex with a reversible vagina and ovum, and a female sex with uterus and a retrovirus that slightly modifies the implanted egg.
    • Also when Gurgeh is taken to a nightclub/wrestling arena and his guide reassures him about a contestant being suffocated in the mud: "The Uhnyrchal can breathe through their dicks — that guy's fine; he'll be fighting in another club tomorrow night." Then it gets cut off by the victor.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Inverted. When Gurgeh is blackmailed into playing in Azad, the drone blackmailing him actually tells him, "What I'm doing is an old concept called blackmail." Because the Culture is a utopia, Gurgeh probably hasn't heard the term before.
  • Calvin Ball: Azad is ridiculously complex and no real rules for the game are ever provided to the reader.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted: the first thing Gurgeh notices upon descending on the capital planet is the labyrinth prison. Flere-Imsaho explains that inside there are complex rules that if followed allow for a swift release. One would expect that Gurgeh would be interned there but it is never mentioned again.
  • Comically Small Bribe: An interesting, and non-comedic take on this trope. A group of Azad's elites invite Gurgeh to a private island retreat before he travels to the finals of the Azad tournament, and offer him said island, the fully-appointed luxurious mansion on it, and a harem of Sex Slaves if he agrees to retire there and never play Azad again. But, since Gurgeh hails from the Culture, however, this is utterly meaningless — he can enjoy, and indeed has enjoyed, a far more comfortable lifestyle for free back home, with the only thing he can't obtain being the slaves, which are redundant anyway.
  • Confusion Fu: How Gurgeh comes back from behind to win his first game of Azad: he mixes contradictory playstyles to throw off his opponents.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Gurgeh accepting the offer of Mawhrin-Skel, a drone who is clearly mentally unstable and loves screwing with people, to help him cheat. It deciding to Blackmail him afterwards isn't that much of a surprise to the reader, though it's implied that everyone in the Culture is normally so nice that such behaviour is genuinely unforeseeable. And then it turns out that Mawhrin-Skel was a Special Circumstances plant who was intended to ensure he ended up going to Azad.
  • Double-Meaning Title: As is frequently the case with Culture novels. The Player Of Games is of course Gurgeh (it's literally the meaning of his self-chosen middle name), but unsurprisingly, by the end it's pretty clear that Special Circumstances might be the ultimate game-player - using Gurgeh as a piece.
  • Enemy Civil War: Azad's leaders are so darwinistic that they end up being more competent at killing each other off than posing a threat to Gurgeh. It helps matters that the main purpose of Azad is to determine status in the Empire rather than to punish upstart outsiders. Numerous departmental rivalries and personal grudges are implied throughout the novel; in particular, the penultimate game features Gurgeh sitting back and calmly gaining points while his opponents, from two different schools of military thought, tear each other to pieces.
  • Epunymous Title / Title Drop / You Are the Translated Foreign Word: As is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, in the Culture's language, Marain, the sobriquet Morat in the name of Jernau Morat Gurgeh translates to "the player of games". Towards the end of the novel, an Azadian who knows about the Culture refers to him as Morat, "the player of games". The middle names are effectively self-chosen official nicknames. Lampshaded when another character comments that Gurgeh should have chosen another name: "gambler".
  • Everyone Is Bi: Gurgeh is seen as odd by many folks in the Culture for never having had sex with a man.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!:
    • As Gurgeh is leaving one of his games, victorious, he notices that the terrain around him seems similar to an Azad board ... and if it were an Azad board, then one of his pieces would be in danger of a sneak attack ... and that piece would be himself ... and he dodges the assassins just in time.
    • Later on, Gurgeh is playing an Azadian judge, and after a break Gurgeh comes back and starts playing considerably better, with the judge seeing something familiar in Gurgeh's eyes, but not quite being able to put his finger on it. During that break, Gurgeh had been shown the true dark underbelly of Azadian society, and was now operating on Tranquil Fury. Then the judge realises that the look he has given to condemned criminals over the years, is the one he is now receiving from Gurgeh.
  • Exposition of Immortality: Chamlis Amalk-Ney, the aging drone who's one of Gurgeh's close friends on Chiark Orbital, is at least four thousand years old by its own admission (no-one is impolite enough to look up its construction date to find out if it's really older). In between the drone's much larger body than a more modern drone, like the warped and snarky Mawhrin-Skel, and those two sniping insults at each other about their respective ages, there's also Gurgeh's own musing about the age of Chamlis and how long the drone's been living on Chiark.
  • Extra Parent Conception: The Empire of Azad is ruled by a humanoids with three genders. Male, female and apex. An apex has a reversible set of equipment and carries the fertilized embryo from male to female. All three genders contribute genes, but the knowledge that females are more than passive child bearers is suppressed: the apices are very much on top and exercise crushing sexual discrimination against both other genders.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Emperor-Regent Nicosar, is a modest-seeming, polite and well-spoken apex, but under his reign xenocide, imperialism, and sexism abound, most ordinary people are forced to live in squalid conditions and Azad's elite watch live broadcasts of exceptionally cruel executions for fun. This becomes much more apparent when it becomes clear Gurgeh is about to beat him at Azad, at which point he snaps, backhands his opponent across the face while delivering a Motive Rant, and decides to destroy his castle along with everyone and everything in it rather than lose. Though this is slightly more justified as Flere-Imsaho told him the Culture would invade if he lost.
  • Gorn: This (literally "torture porn") is the favored programming of restricted Azadian television stations available to the political and military elite.
  • Groin Attack: It is possible to use your genitals as a wager, attacking them in quite a literal way. Not only is this a very effective psychological strategy to use against your opponent (as the risk of a full castration is certainly going to throw you off your game if not pull out entirely) but its mentioned that the origin of a body bet was actually a drive towards making the game fairer for the lower classes as even those without money would always be able to afford to enter the game by betting on their own bodies.
  • Hunting "Accident": Some of the Azadians try to arrange an accident for Gurgeh by taking over the powered exoskeleton of one of his hunting partners; it quickly becomes obviously not an accident when the occupant of the exoskeleton starts resisting.
  • Humanoid Resources. Near the end of the book, Gurgeh listens to a large band perform. Then one of the Azadians explains how the instruments were made from body parts such as femurs ("do the flutes come in pairs, or are there a lot of one-legged music critics out there?"), skin ("it's called a family of drums"), etc.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: A brief segment is narrated from the perspective of his Azadian opponent, who mentally describes Gurgeh as vaguely insect-like.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Gurgeh spots an ambush when he realizes how the area around him is like an Azad board. More generally, the whole Empire is based on the idea that a good Azad player is a good ruler: the grand tournaments of Azad, held every six years, are used to determine who becomes Emperor, and where everyone else falls into the pecking order.
  • Immortal Immaturity
    • It's easy to miss, but Gurgeh makes a comment on how the professor he knows is twice his age, and he refers to her as being into her second century, meaning that he is between fifty and a century old himself (in the final pages, we find out he's 60). While presumably, Gurgeh has developed his masterful game-playing skills in that time, he's really callow in other respects and is about as mature as his young body would suggest.
    • Professor Boruelal's behaviour herself is fairly immature for someone twice Gurgeh's age; spending most of it drunk and carousing and bouncing between genders.
  • Incendiary Exponent: The final game with the Emperor is played on a planet with a perpetual wildfire running around the equator; the the climax of the game happens just as the fire reaches the castle where the game is being played.
  • Language Equals Thought:
    • The Culture language, Marain, is a constructed language designed to be as expressive as possible. The Empire language, Eachic, evolved naturally and contains underlying assumptions and a more aggressive attitude. After Gurgeh has spent some time speaking only Eachic, Flere-Imsaho observes he has started playing more like "one of those carnivores he'd been listening to".
    • It doesn't seem a coincidence that in the final games against the emperor, when Gurgeh is losing badly Flere-Imsaho has him speak his native Marain for an evening and that after that his attitude and outlook change, including the realisation that his playstyle mimics the Culture and that by becoming the Culture militant he succeeds at coming back and gaining a winning position in the game.
  • Lighter and Softer: After the billions of casualties and Downer Ending of Consider Phlebas, this is much lighter and softer, although still pretty dark.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Gurgeh's friend and 'lust interest' Yay, a playful and energetic young woman. She's something of a subversion, in that her Manic Pixie Dream Girl personality makes her a better fit for the hedonism of the Culture than does the protagonist's discomfort with a life without challenges.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: There are three levels of restricted entertainment in the Empire of Azad. The first, relatively easy to access level is largely mundane porn. The second level is nasty, filthy porn. The third level, only available to the elite of society, is clearly suggested to be literal torture porn and snuff, but we mostly just see Gurgeh's reaction instead of having it described in detail.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • Used by the Culture against Azad in several respects. The drone Gurgeh travels with is encased in a suit which makes it look clumsy and malfunctioning, and while it plays the part of an officious translator drone, it is actually quite competent and ruthless. Also, the hedonistic Culture representative in Azad is actually a foreign-born mercenary; Gurgeh's ship/living quarters looks demilitarized and he believed it to be so, but it's actually highly armed. However, this is mostly for the benefit of the majority of the Azadian population: at least eight of the Empire's most highly ranked officials know just how technologically advanced, sophisticated, and expansive the Culture really is.
    • Shohobohaum Za, the Culture's ambassador to Azad, deserves some further elaboration: he behaves like an unabashed, immature hedonist, going so far as to present a Bawdy Song as the Culture's national anthem (not that that's entirely inaccurate), but is in fact a Special Circumstances plant — he rapidly springs into action to protect Gurgeh from an assassination attempt and Blackmail plot, and the ending notes that he quickly assumed a leading role in the revolution against the Empire after Nicosar's attempted murder-suicide.
  • Pronoun Trouble: Lampshaded and defied; the Lemony Narrator points out that while many languages would have trouble with expressing the third, apex gender of the Azadian race in a non-silly way due to their speakers not having as many sexes, the Empire is such a gender-dominated society that it is probably a safe bet to refer to them as whatever the generally higher-status sex the reader's culture ascribes. From there on out, all apex-gendered Azadians are given male pronouns.
  • Rock–Paper–Scissors: The Empire's version (blade-cloth-stone-water-fire) is based on one of the sub-games in Azad.
  • Secret Police: The Empire has them. Gurgeh, despite being brilliant at games of bluffing and deception, is confused about how these might be useful — after all, police are supposed to be obvious. Which is probably why he didn't realize the Culture might have its own undercover operatives.
  • Serious Business: The game of Azad, which represents the Empire's culture and its winners become high ranking government officials, even potentially the Emperor. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as if you are good at Azad, you also have a good understanding of the Empire.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A rare positive example, in that the Empire of Azad tries and fails to best the Culture in their imperial game and end up with the Emperor murdering the entire imperial power structure before accidentally killing himself. The Culture don't even bother invading Azad in the end, as the Empire collapses on its own.
  • Take Our Word for It: Most of Azad's intricacies are never described in detail.
  • Take That!: Immediately following a fairly lengthy description of the Empire's propaganda, not unlike some of the news commentary we have here on Earth:
    Gurgeh laughed and shook his head. He thought the common people must be remarkably stupid if they believed all this nonsense.
  • Tranquil Fury: After Gurgeh learns of the dark underbelly of Azadian society, including broadcasts of horrific torture, his next game session has him walk into the game hall, turn a losing position into the utter destruction of his opponent, and walk back out, all without saying a word or even displaying any emotions.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Flere-Imsaho and Mawhrin-Skel are one and the same.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Special Circumstances keeps Gurgeh completely in the dark while it plots to manipulate him along with everyone else involved. And since Gurgeh himself never expresses much more than passing curiosity about what they're really up to, he could be seen as more of an Uncaring Pawn.