The Culture/The Player of Games

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The second Culture novel by Iain M Banks and the one that's generally considered the best introduction to the series [1]. It tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, an expert game player, who is recruited/blackmailed by Special Circumstances into going to the Empire of Azad to play the game of Azad.

Tropes used in The Culture/The Player of Games include:
  • Absurdly High Stakes Game: Your rank in Azad is also your rank in the Azad Empire.
  • 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 plays Azad in "Culture style" rather than Azadian style. While his Azadian opponent is consistently ruthless in his playing, Gurgeh's style involves a generally less aggressive attitude, but 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"
  • 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 of the term blackmail.
  • Calvin Ball: Azad is ridiculously complex and no real rules for the game are ever provided to the reader
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: People play boardgames with performance enhancing drugs
  • The Empire: Azad.
  • 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
  • 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, Marian, 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."
  • 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 it's own admission (no one is impolite enough to look up it's 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.
  • Gorn: This (literally "torture porn") is the favored programming of Azadian television broadcasts
  • Honey Trap: Gurgeh nearly gets caught by one.
  • Hunting Accident: Some of the Azadians try to arrange one of these for Gurgeh.
  • 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. 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.
    • Arguably, 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: After the billions of casualties in Consider Phlebas, this is much lighter and softer, although still pretty dark.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Gurgeh's friend, Yay.
  • 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.
  • Rock-Paper-Scissors: The Empire's version (blade-cloth-stone-water-fire) is based on one of the sub-games in Azad.
  • 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.
  • Take Our Word for It: Most of Azad's intricacies.
  • 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, he starts playing with this as his underlying personality.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Special Circumstances keeps Gurgeh completely in the dark while it plots behind the scenes. Gurgeh: master gamemaster and naive pawn [2].
  • Unreliable Narrator the drone who accompanied Gurgeh to Azad and who is actually the snarky drone he knew from back home
  • Villainous Breakdown/Taking You with Me the Emperor of Azad. When he loses it completely he sure knows how to lay his cards down.
  1. Its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, is excellent, but doesn't so much as "introduce" you to The Culture as throw you at it
  2. Chillingly, possibly an Uncaring Pawn. Reality isn't where Gurgeh lives, mostly.