It’s here, in the second Culture novel, that Banks figures out how to tell a story with the Culture. Consider Phlebas, somewhat problematically, is narrated by someone not from the Culture, which flattens some of the most interesting aspects of the Culture itself.
This book, which only mentions the war in passing and by implication, gets at something more interesting because it is the story of a Culture citizen. Besides the main character, Gurgeh, the Culture also becomes a proxy for the reader — it’s not the kind of society we have, but it is the kind of society we (and here, I mean SF fans) love to believe we could have; the United Federation of Planets taken to an extreme, if you will.
The rather narrow focus of The Player of Games vs. the Cugel-style travelogue of Consider Phlebas also allows far more focus on the themes, the impact of society, societal assumptions and language on people, for the most part.
As an avid fan and collector of boardgames, it’s oddly thrilling to read a book where the protagonist is a gamer, renowned for his skill at games. The gaming sequences are couched convincingly in the language of action, so the few shifts to actual action feel quite natural.
One of my favorites of the Culture series, and the only one I have read three times. (I will also have read Excession three times by the time I’m done with it.)
Up next in the re-read: Canal Dreams, which I have never read, do not own and do not know the slightest thing about… but Acceptance comes out tomorrow, and there’s this copy of Lock-In I bought last week at that new bookstore downtown, and a dungeon to read and prep besides.