are shifting to play the Game.
Sleep well, Contestant.
This is the next Culture novel, after Consider Phlebas, & it is a better one, too. First off, my revelation: the biggest influence on the Culture novels is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. No really! For all that the Minds are post-Singularity smart, they have a sense of humor-- I mean Banks might argue that it is precisely because they are megabrains that they keep laughing. Even their warships have names like "No More Mister Niceguy" or "Trade Surplus." Banks isn't writing a farce here, far from it, but if Douglas Adams had sat down & gone "well, okay, lets say you did have a book that could tell you everything worth knowing. & that there were planet-sized computers trying to figure out imponderables. & that spaceships went so fast that no one could really understand how they did it or just how fast they were going. Well...how would that go?" & then output The Culture.
Because The Culture is so universally benign & utopian, the books pretty quickly skirt away from it. Captain Kirk doesn't hang out at Federation spas, he goes gallivanting around on the fringes & beyond, doesn't he? Well, Banks has a similar philosophy, but brutally diverges at the point of contact. No, for all The Culture might be post-possession, free love, parties & games? Death is still messy, still easy. Bad things happen; bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Rape happens. Banks doesn't flinch from showing the darker side of the tale. Once you get out from under the bubble of The Culture, things are...well, barbaric. & The Culture, well...aren't imperialistic, not really. Oh, you'll almost certainly be enculturated into them, they'll spread & absorb you memetically & genetically but they won't tell you to do it at gun point! Sooner or later, it'll just happen; if not to you, to your kids, or your ancestors. No hurry.
Player of Games is about The Culture butting up with a competitor. Not a serious competitor; an empire in the billions, grabbed a few planets, but holding together long after most similarly advance societies fragment. Why? They've got a game. So, through a bit of temptation & chicanery, they bring the best game player in The Culture to the Empire. At which point, Iain Banks just starts ripping into America-- hell, into Earth. I mean, it isn't Earth, but might as well be. Sure, there are three sexes, but that just highlights the genderpolitik. The machines of The Culture try to explain how the society works, & can't help but use terms like "slavery." Sure, they point out that actual, precise-to-the-definition slavery is illegal, that the people trumpet the end of slavery-- but that people are still bought & sold. That people of unfortunate tribal descent are forced, through usurious means stretching generations, into ghettos & shantytowns. Hell, Banks has an aside on the translation-- Marian, The Culture's language, has a nice gender neutral pronoun meaning "thinking creature." Brains, not gonads, as he puts it. You, the reader? He'll translate the third, apex gender's pronouns into male. Since, guess what-- your language is a language of dominance & submission. Oh, & he's not pulling punches about it; a few times he goes over the top with the discrimination & disadvantage, but he really hits stride when he's talking about the subtle strains of it. Heck, I was really worried about the protagonist; speaking the empire's language, being submersed in their civilization-- it was really taking a toll on him. Spooky.