My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I first read it, over a decade ago, Player of Games was not my favorite Culture novel. In fact, it was my second least-favorite, ranking just above Excession. Not that it was a bad book, by any means, but I felt that, in the Empire of Azad, Banks had created a ridiculous caricature of a xenophobic, militaristic, authoritarian, sexist society, and used it as a rather smug way of proving the moral superiority of the Culture.
I don't find the Empire of Azad nearly so ridiculous any longer. I still think there are a few places in which Banks over-eggs things a bit in terms of convincing the reader that the Azadians are really horrible, but overall, they're entirely plausible.
More importantly, I see the book less as a smug exercise in demonstrating the superiority of the Culture than as an attempt to address two philosophical objections to post-scarcity societies like the Culture: first, the idea that in such societies, life lacks purpose because people don't have to struggle for existence; and second, the idea that a peaceful, consensus-driven society like the Culture will always be defeated by a warlike authoritarian society because the inhabitants of the warlike society have greater will and fortitude in defending their ideas. It's still preaching the choir (at least for a reader like me), but at least it's a more complex point than, "Genocide, torture, and sexism are bad, okay?"
I still don't think that this will end up being my favorite Culture novel when I've finished this re-read, but it's a better book than I'd given it credit for. I'm really curious to see whether my reaction to Excession will change, but I've got a few books to read before I get there.
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