Jernau Gurgeh is the best game player the Culture has ever seen. (For clarity, these games are analogous to the board games of today. He writes scholarly papers on them. He takes parts in tournaments. He lives and breathes games. However, he is somewhat bored. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, with no want, death, suffering or exploitation. Winning at games is a purely intellectual pleasure. However there are civilizations outside the Culture. Gurgeh is contacted by Special Circumstances, a branch of “Contact”, the Culture’s organizations for dealing with newly contacted civilizations. It seems that in the barbaric Empire of Azad, a monumentally complex game is used to control appointments to government offices, even so far as to decide who becomes emperor.
Writing about a post-scarcity utopia is difficult. There is no real struggle. The interesting stories come about when there are encounters with the world outside the utopia’s borders. In fact the novel is slow and ponderous until the action reaches the Empire of Azad. The protagonist suffers from ennui but the reader is not left with a strong impression of him. He comes alive once the stakes are real, going through a transformation from happy but docile citizen of the culture to vibrant player, both literally and figuratively, with the means to affect society in very significant ways. The metaphor may be in-your-face but it is still well written.