The Culture is a society without scarcity, expertly managed by hyper-intelligent AI (Minds) and populated by both long-living and biologically advanced humans and other sentient AI (ships and drones). The humans are ostensibly the center of things, but do the least of the heavy lifting, and spend most of their time living it up and having fun. There are no class divisions in the Culture, no racial injustice, no religious intolerance and--crucially--a fluid, changeable notion of gender and sexuality that obviates discrimination along those lines.
Clearly the Culture is Banks' utopia, a place without the problems that dog our own world. If that was all there was to it, though, these novels would be really boring. Thankfully, Banks has situated the Culture within a galaxy full of other societies, and his novels largely explore the interactions between the Culture and its neighbors, most of which can be described as "not good." Utopia though it may be, when the Culture gets involved in foreign entanglements, it looks awfully neo-colonial and paternalistic. This is, in the end, a direct result of the Culture's "superiority" over its neighbors, and Banks is a sophisticated enough writer to navigate us through the murky moral terrain this implies, offering more questions rather than neat, tidy answers.
THE PLAYER OF GAMES is the second installment in Iain M. Banks' culture series. It is not necessary to read the first, CONSIDER PHLEBAS, to enjoy this book. In fact, I'd actually recommend starting here, as THE PLAYER OF GAMES is a much better introduction to the series. Why? Here's why:
1. Readers get a clearer sense of what the Culture is, its internal social relations and how it deals with neighboring societies it deems "inferior."
2. The characters are fully-fleshed out, relatable and much more memorable.
3. The plot is actually quite simple, whereas in other Culture novels it tends to be complex bordering on opaque.
All of this will come to your aid when you read USE OF WEAPONS or EXCESSION, both of which are excellent books, but require a bit of background knowledge and contextualization to get through.
THE PLAYER OF GAMES centers on Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a champion game-player who has grown bored with his life of leisure. Enter Special Circumstances, one of the Culture's two clandestine services. Through some dirty tricks, they manage to recruit Gurgeh for a mission to the Empire of Azad, a highly stratified and downright oppressive society marked by extreme gender divisions. Why this particular playboy? Because social position and rank in the Empire are determined by the results of a grand contest, also called Azad. Special Circumstances figure Gurgeh might actually be able to win the game, and if so...well...I don't want to give up too much.
Bottom line is, this is about as good as the New Space Opera gets. I say "about" because USE OF WEAPONS is even better. But you should read this one first. It's well-crafted, well-written, memorable and thought-provoking--everything SF should be.
Objective Quality: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for OMG space opera that's well written; +1 for moral ambiguity that makes you think more deeply about your own world, and the way people act in it--rather than just conclude that everyone's an a**hole; +1 for quirky little bits of humor that never seen trite or distracting
Penalties: -1 for Banks' occasional need to remind us that Azad is really really bad and the Culture is really really good, which rein in the more complex questions of moral universalism vs. relativism; -1 for, along those lines, the lack of sympathetic characters among the Azadians.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."