Iain Banks' Culture novels explore the idea that in the very long run, technological improvements will make current systems of government obsolete. They depict a civilization in which nothing is compulsory -- the sheer number of available resources implies that there's never any reason to compel anyone to do anything. Of course this is somewhat boring, so the Culture novels are usually about the Culture's interface with less advanced civilizations.
The Player of Games is about Jernau Gurgeh, one of the Culture's best game players. He's so good that contact, the Culture's public relations department, offers him the opportunity to play Azad, an incredibly complicated game developed by a backwater barbarian space empire and elevated by them to a central position in their society: every so often the power structure of the empire is determined by the outcome of a large Azad tournament. The idea is that the game is so difficult that to excel at it one must have the same skills that would allow one to excel in real life. Things become exciting as Gurgeh enters the tournament and does better than expected.
I liked many things about The Player of Games; it's great SF and contains a lot of Banks' trademark humor. However, I found his depiction of the Empire of Azad to be a little overdone: its inhabitants turn out to be thoroughly dislikable as well as not being as good at their game as they thought. Also, the ending was slightly weak -- part of it was too easy to see coming and part was too out-of-the-blue. Still, I'd recommend this book and it would make a good place to begin reading the Culture novels.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr