I read this second novel of the Culture hot on the heels of Consider Phlebas, and despite the shared setting of the interstellar civilization of the Culture itself and a few formal similarities, the feel of each book differs widely from the other. They are both structured around an ambivalently sympathetic central character with special abilities, and told by an obscured narrator, but the pacing of Consider Phlebas is faster for having shorter and more numerous chapters, along with more incidents of catastrophic violence. Of course, the protagonist of the first book is a declared enemy of the Culture, while The Player of Games is himself a Culture man.
The context of the first book was a rare war involving the Culture as a belligerent, but this one accounts for an alternative way in which neighboring hostile powers might be managed. The Empire which serves as this book’s foil for the Culture is constructed with a lot of telling detail, and the game-as-pervasive-practice-and-pattern is played out here in a way that goes far beyond its archetype in the John Carter pulp adventure The Chessmen of Mars. I was a little disappointed that the complete opacity of the Culture’s relationship to terrestrial humanity was not at all relieved in this book, but it is set some centuries after the previous one, and thus also further from us in time.
For the screen-oriented sf set, I’d recommend the Culture books to those who are more sympathetic to the “left” trajectory of Star Trek as opposed to the “right” approach of Star Wars. I think there’s actually good fodder for the screen in this series (although not in the absence of capable screenwriters!), and their merits are not so much in their “literary” form or substance as in the accustomed genre pillars of world-building, technological imagination, social commentary, and “ideas” generally.
I will read more of these, but I’ll take a pause until Use of Weapons falls into my hands, rather than vaulting over the sequence to the next one that I already own a copy of.