Iain M. Banks, The player of games, An Orbit Book (Orbit, 2003). 320pp.
Good in parts. Very slow to get started: the idea of an almost-all-powerful, post-scarcity society is great as a utopia but not particularly interesting because there’s (by its very nature) almost no conflict. The event that draws the protagonist into the main action of the story therefore feels very unlikely (and I suppose in the context of the Culture it is, because most people in this society will never experience the kind of threat or risk that in other societies might make ‘adventure’ necessary).
About 30% through the scenario shifts and it gets more interesting. There’s a clear satire going on of real-world capitalist society and imperialism (although I saw hints of imperialism on both sides). It’s a little heavy-handed sometimes — the explanation to the Culture-born protagonist of such barbaric institutions as prisons and marriage, for example (not that I disagree with the author’s opinions).
I think I’d actually have liked to see more of the Culture — perhaps exploring how conflicts might arise despite the state of post-scarcity. (That reminds me of The Dispossessed.) The protagonist himself wasn’t particularly likeable; that was especially noticeable in the first section, where he was in his own environment. He seemed rather self-absorbed and unsympathetic; perhaps this is related to the motivation being so unconvincing. (And perhaps it’s inevitable that someone from a post-scarcity society will appear unimaginably privileged and ungrateful to someone in the real world.)
There were also a couple of places where the author’s attempts to make it sound ‘otherworldly’ fell flat; one was the use of ‘volume’ where we might use ‘area’, but for three-dimensional space. The analogy is fine, but there are perfectly good words already that don’t imply two dimensions: ‘region’ or ‘vicinity’, perhaps. The other was the section explaining how enlightened the Culture’s language was, in that its pronouns did not differentiate people by gender. All very well, and once again I don’t disagree with the author’s politics here, but this isn’t something that requires an otherworldly hyper-enlightened constructed language — plenty of real-world languages don’t have gendered pronouns (Finnish, for example).