Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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The Player of Games

By Iain Banks

Finished reading on December 16, 2018

The Culture novels were recommended to me by a friend and I finally got a chance to read one of them while traveling. There’s a fairly expansive set of books covering all of Culture, and this one was recommended to me as a good starting place.

Overall, it’s a pretty interesting story with hooks into the greater universe, but occasionally poor writing and flat character development breaks the story’s immersion. Banks has a tendency to have his characters think obviously deep thoughts, while someone like Ursula K. Le Guin will be able to discuss ideas in more subtle and interesting ways. For example, in The Left Hand of Darkness, she has her main character Genly explore around an alien world. As he travels, you share his wonder at discovery and intrigue, as opposed to having him think deep thoughts or give profound speeches.

As a general concept though, the notion that culture can be reduced into a game, or a game can perfectly mimic a society is interesting. There are a number of other books that I read on the trip where this idea is reflected: The Luzhin Defense shows how this sort of worldview leads to madness. Winners Take All explores the ways in which modern capitalism has been reduced into a game in some ways with fixed rules (the so-called “protocols”) and obvious victors.

There are some interesting wrinkles in the Culture series that make the series worth exploring more broadly, so I will probably return to it in the future.

★★★☆☆