Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit, 1988.
This book is one of the early Culture novels. It tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a master game player seeking new challenges. He is recruited by Contact to play the game of Azad, a complicated game that determines the fate of the Empire of Azad. The theme of life as a game is explored here. While people often think that politics or business or relationships are like a game, in Azad this is formalized, and the skills people deploy in playing the game determine their careers.
Another interesting aspect of the story is that the people of Azad have three genders, described as male, apex and female. For Culture citizens, the idea of people's gender having relevance to social status is alien, so Gurgeh has to adjust not just to the differing biology of people in Azad, but to the new concept of social classes.
Not surprisingly, Gurgeh's role is not quite what he was led to believe, and Contact has its own agenda. The secret identity of one of the characters was obvious to me quite early on (but this didn't detract from my enjoyment).
This story showed one of the problems of the utopian Culture: boredom. When people have their basic needs fulfilled and are free to do whatever they want, they have so many choices. To find a satisfying way to occupy yourself in such a society must be challenging. People specialize in their areas of interest, and some of them teach others. The description of how Gurgeh becomes totally absorbed in the game and focused on it, almost to the exclusion of all other thoughts, for hours or days on end, reflects the concept of "flow", used in positive psychology. This is how we should all aim to spend our working or playing hours.
Another rather obvious aspect of the story is the way the player is being used as a pawn in a larger game. Ultimately, Contact and Special Circumstances are much more experienced and sophisticated players than any individual, and the stakes are much higher.
I enjoyed this novel, and it could serve as a good introduction to the Culture series for new readers.