I read quite a few books this year that belong on canonical “Best of Science Fiction” lists: The City and the Stars, The Three Body Problem, and so forth. These were all quite good books, but – for reasons I’ll shortly outline – another book was head and shoulders above even these well-regarded works.
My favorite book read during 2016 is “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks.
You’ll recall from my reading list, that I had previously read “Consider Phlebas” – the first book in The Culture Series for which “Player” is the second – and that it hadn’t made much of an impact on me. I was intrigued by the world of the series but disinterested in the characters and plot. The quality of the prose in “Phlebas” was definitely of the highest level, so it stood to reason that if the right character and plot came along, that Banks and I would become fast friends.
Enter “The Player of Games”. Unlike another book I read recently where I had to wade through the first two hundred pages holding my nose at the egregious dialogue and flat characterizations, “Player” was absolutely riveting from page one. Even more remarkable, “Player” didn’t engage the first tent pole of the plot until probably seventy pages in! It was purely the fascinating world and characters that sucked me in. So when the main story line kicks in, I really couldn’t put it down.
When I finally closed the book, I distinctly recall thinking that the book was flawlessly executed. There was none of that, “Oh that character never would have done that,” or, “All of humanity never would have allowed the protagonist to get away with that.”
The dialogue was believable. The characters rich and multi-faceted. The conclusion surprising but setup well.
It is a remarkable achievement.
But the main thing really is the fascinating world. The imaginative universe of The Culture is second to none. The way Banks treats artificial intelligence, progression of society, the role of technology, self modification through gene-fixing, the quest for self-actualization, and on and on is at such an integrated level, it all blends into a perfect whole. This is not a run of the mill space opera driven by action, it somehow manages to tackle huge speculative topics while not succumbing to the boring, “Let me exposit for ten pages the thing I just read in that physics book” characterless treatises that other books I’ve read recently have fallen prey to.
A friend recently told me upon discovering a great series the pleasure at knowing that so much wonderful reading is still ahead. That is definitely how I feel about The Culture Series. I cannot wait to unwrap my Christmas presents, knowing that many will have Iain M. Banks in the corner.