Gurgeh is possibly the Culture's best game player. He has studied and played games his whole life (somewhere between 60 or 100 years, I wasn't quite sure). The problem is that he's bored. There are few truly new games for him to discover and learn, and few players who are a proper match for him. He yearns to do something no game player has ever done, and that yearning results in a mistake that allows a devious little drone to blackmail him.
Faced with the possibility of a ruined reputation, Gurgeh has no choice but to accept the secret mission Special Circumstances believes he's uniquely suited for. He is to travel to the Empire of Azad, a place outside the Culture, and take part in their biggest and most complex game, a game so important that the empire itself is named after it. The game determines everything, from one's place in the empire to what government position one may hold – and the winner gets to be emperor.
I'm going to start with the good. The Culture itself was somewhat boring, a place where there were few laws and even fewer reasons to commit crimes, where even accidental deaths were rare because humans were almost always monitored for their safety, and where drug use was so common that people had implanted glands that allowed them to produce whatever mixtures they desired. However, the Culture's various drones and Minds (AIs) fascinated me. I found them to be more interesting, and often more likeable, than any of the human characters, even though many of them seemed to think nothing of lying to and using people. I also absolutely loved the various ship names (not many ships with major roles in this book, but a couple whose names I liked were GCU Just Read the Instructions and GSV So Much for Subtlety).
I also enjoyed the Azad gameplay stuff, although the game's level of complexity and Gurgeh's ability to master it in only two years (even taking into account his decades of general gaming experience) was a bit more than I could believe at times. Azad's importance and the drama surrounding it reminded me a great deal of sports and gaming manga and anime, where the characters get so into their games that it can be easy to forget that they have lives outside them.
At least according to what readers were told, Azad really was these characters' whole world. It took Gurgeh a while to internalize that it was more than just an enormously fascinating, complex, and engaging game, that it had real and sometimes horrific consequences, and that it reflected players' personal philosophies and beliefs.
From here, I'll move on to the things that I didn't like about this book, most of which boiled down to Gurgeh. I loathed him. He was an arrogant jerk who became harder and harder for me to stand as the book progressed. At one point, he was having a conversation with someone he didn't really want to listen to. Instead of finding a way to bow out, he turned it into a private little game, rattling on about his gaming theories anytime it looked like the other person was about to talk, going silent whenever it looked like the other person least expected it, and keeping this up for as long as possible. He forgot his supposed friends while traveling to the Empire and was frequently rude to the drone who accompanied him. I couldn't even dredge up any sympathy for him when he was blackmailed, because the situation was so entirely due to his own massive arrogance.
If anything, he only got worse when he made it to the Empire. He almost lost at Azad right from the start, simply because he was too overconfident to pay much attention. Here's the thought he had, as he realized he might lose before he'd barely even gotten a chance to play:
“They all expected him to lose. Only he knew – or had known – he was a better player than they thought. But now he'd thrown away the chance of proving he was right and they were wrong.” (183)
If Banks wanted me to root for Gurgeh, this was the wrong way to go about it. Anyway, Gurgeh managed to pull win after win out of thin air, despite only having studied the game for a couple years. Although I hated the guy, I still wanted to see how far he'd manage to get. I hoped that his successes might trickle down somehow and open things up for the more oppressed groups in the Empire. It was supposedly possible for men, women, and apices (the planet's third and dominant sex) to compete fairly against one another, but in reality everything was stacked in the apices' favor.
Apparently I was hoping for a bit too much. Anyway, as Gurgeh started to lose heart, Flere-Imsaho, the drone accompanying him, showed him the darker and dirtier side of the Empire – the people who were beaten in the streets just because, the people who died because medical care would have been too expensive, and the various levels of blocked television channels (the first level was basic porn, the second level was BDSM and more, and the third level was straight up torture porn and snuff films). That was when Gurgeh somehow managed to become even more awful, fixating on the torture porn.
This apparently gave him the level of anger he needed to beat his opponent and go on to the next round. I had lots of problems with this. I mean, quite a lot of people are able to be righteously angry without watching great gobs of torture porn. And Gurgeh had seen and heard plenty, prior to Flere-Imsaho's field trip, that should/could have made him angry. The best that male Azadians could hope for was becoming soldiers. Female Azadians were little more than the property of the apices, equivalent to human women who have no power or say in their lives unless they're married. Gurgeh even met one such Azadian, Trinev, a young lady who planned to take part in the great game just for the slim chance of getting to join the civil service and travel, but who also knew she'd never make it past the first or second round.
Gurgeh had plenty of opportunities to get mad about the way the Empire worked...and it took torture porn and snuff films to really get him fired up. Yes, the Empire was almost comically evil (there was even a swanky party featuring a band that played musical instruments made out of Azadian bones and skin, to further emphasize the ruling class's evilness), but at the same time I couldn't bring myself to root for Gurgeh.
Then again, maybe Banks wasn't trying to write a story about a heroic game player pitted against an evil empire. I'm still not sure what he was aiming for. The twist at the end was good, if unoriginal (even for its time), but it left me feeling confused. Was the end result that Gurgeh accomplished really what the Culture had been aiming for all along? Was that really the best the Minds could come up with, after decades of planning?
I could write a lot more – about the way Banks handled gender, about the inconsistencies in Gurgeh's characterization, about the comparisons I've seen between Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books and this series – but I think it's time to wrap this up. What it comes down to: this book had a pretty strong “not for me” thread in it (Gurgeh!), and yet I still found it to be an engaging read. I don't know that I liked it, but the series as a whole has definitely caught my attention, and I'm looking forward to trying more of the books in it. I just hope that they don't all star people like Gurgeh. Too bad Flere-Imsaho or D(GOU) Limiting Factor couldn't have vaporized him and taken over the book.
This is my 3 stars of "I don't even know" rating. Rating this book would have been easier if I hadn't disliked Gurgeh so much. I'd have cheered for the effect the ending had on him if it hadn't also been so terrible for so many other people.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)