The Player of Games is the book that almost always gets my recommendation as the best place to start with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Rereading it for this month’s book group selection, I stand by that assessment – which is no slight on its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, a thrilling and masterful work of space opera in its own right. But while Phlebas introduces the Culture from the viewpoint of an enemy, Player is the first book with a Culture protagonist – which makes it a good test for a new reader, because I suspect the way Banks’ hyperadvanced utopian civilization sees itself in this book is something you’re going to either love or hate.
Which brings up something that sank in for me even more on this reading than my first: The Player of Games is an extremely political book. I noticed it my first time through, of course; all the Culture books are political, and boldly so – looked at collectively, as Iain Banks’ Gesamtkunstwerk, they advance a powerful and complicated argument about organizing human societies and the choices we face in doing so. And maybe more nakedly than some of its successors, Player wears its politics on its sleeve, to an extent that I think a reader’s reaction to its underlying assumptions is going to depend a lot on how much you are in harmony with Banks’ – and the Culture’s – political philosophy.