I've been intermittently trying to get into the Culture novels for years now. The first time I picked one up was probably in college, and that was also the first of many times that I read the first ten pages of one of these books and said to myself, "This is complicated, confusing, and curiously unemotional, and I'm really not feeling it" and then tossed it into a corner until the library eventually recalled it from me.
However, the streak is finally broken!
Yesterday, I checked out Player of Games from the SF digital library, and now I'm pretty sure that I'm actually going to complete it. Which is good. These always felt like the kind of novels that I ought to enjoy, even when I wasn't actually enjoying it.
Part of the problem was probably just a lack of trust in the author. During the first twenty pages of the book, it's mostly set-up, and I never had sufficient trust that an actual story was going to agglomerate out of the mass of arcane setting details.
But now that one has occurred, I have to say that I'm impressed. The problem that Banks sets himself is one of the oldest ones in SF: When your characters live in a far-future utopia, what kind of stories are left to be told?
And Banks has created one of the most utopian of utopias: a galaxy-spanning civilization that's ruled by benevolent machine intelligences who let people pretty much do whatever they want; a world where people can be anything, have anything, look like anything, do anything, and live for damn near forever.
My impression is that most of the Culture novels are about people from this civlization, the Culture, butting up against other not-so-enlightened civilizations that surround them, but I'm not sure yet, since I haven't read any of those novels. Anyway, that's definitely the case with this one: it's about one of the galaxy's top game-players (think the Gary Kasparov of this galaxy) being dispatched to an empire in another galaxy that is entirely organized around a game called Azad (which, by the way, is the Hindi/Urdu/Farsi/etc word for 'Free').
So far, the character story is a bit thin: it's the typical bit about the ennui of the immortal. But the universe is lush and filled with interesting things. There's a liveliness to life in the Culture that is at odds with the world-weariness of the main character: people want things. Even the main character wants things, even if he doesn't quite know what they are. There are stakes, even if they're only in terms of things like reputations. Anyway, I am enjoying it, and I haven't even gotten to the 'interacting with aliens' part of it yet.