This was my first book in Iain M. Banks sprawling Culture series. I have been reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy lately, because for some reason that's all that sounds interesting to me, but I have to admit it is very annoying knowing that every book I pick up is the first in a _______. Usually that blank is "trilogy," except when it isn't (or it really isn't). And while there may be lots and lots of Culture books, they are all standalone stories with a beginning and an end. You can read one published in 1987 and one published in 2010 and it won't make a difference. This is very soothing to my nerves. So anyway, the Culture. I wanted to read this series because of a Goodreads review I came across for Excession which noted that half the book is smartass back-and-forth between two sentient artificial intelligences. I love stories about wiseacre supercomputers; in my book, HAL 9000 is the hero of 2001: A Space Odyssey and all the humans just get in the way of the computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. My favorite episode of Futurama is the one where the ship (voiced by Signouney Weaver, natch) falls for Fry ("You're just jealous! Nobody loves you because you're tiny and made of meat!").The Culture is a society ruled by these machines, which instead of going the violent Skynet route... has decided that hey, humans aren't so bad after all. In the Culture, the machines take care of everything; no human goes hungry, disease and famine are a thing of the past. Sci-fi nerds call this a post-scarcity society, but basically it means that people don't have to actually do anything to survive. They don't even need to work, because no one needs money in a society with no wants. So basically because you are still going to need to do something with your existence, the human citizens of the Culture devote themselves to creative pursuits like art or repeatedly undergoing sex changes or, like Gurgeh, playing games.Gurgeh is, in fact, the best Player of Games in the entire Culture. Board games, we're talking. Not sports. For this he is super-famous anyway, and frequently hosts parties, writes papers and speaks at symposiums. This would be like if the nerds who play Magic: The Gathering were as idolized as Magic: The Johnson. But Gurgeh is so good at all the existing games that he jumps at the chance to travel to a newly-discovered alien society known as The Empire (subtle!) and play the game known as Azad, which is so complex and revered that it has come to form the basis of the Empire's power structure. Meaning it would probably piss some people off if a foreigner came by and casually won, thus destroying the foundation of their entire society and such (symbolism that I totally missed is revealed in Manny's review).That's a pretty good setup right there, I think. I like stories about games (the obvious parallel is, of course, Ender's Game), and this is a good one, even though Banks doesn't really explain Azad to us (this is just as well; it takes Gurgeh over a year of dedicated study to begin to understand the rules; reading them would be confusing/boring/underwhelming/all three). We don't have any idea what is going on, but the loosely sketched matches still make for exciting reading, as do the sometimes heavy-handed comparisons between the refined politeness of the Culture and the raw barbarism of the Empire, as well as the musings on the morality of state-building, i.e. intervening in a less advanced society because you know better, i.e. the Prime Directive Paradigm).But what really made the book fun for me were the trappings of the Culture itself. The idea of a post-scarcity society is really interesting to me, and Banks has fashioned a good one, with a lot of fun examples of the ways humanity (so to speak) has dealt with its status as a largely extraneous life form in the grand scheme of galaxy-spanning sentient worldships. The AIs themselves are collectively my favorite characters, from the massive spaceships, so big they are controlled by robotic hive minds, to the small drones that follow humans around and make fun of them. And swear. I imagined them like this, but sassier:I always liked that movie. I bet if I watched it again I would discover it really isn't very good, Jessica Tandy aside (Tandy power!).Despite my series-stress, I am definitely going to read more Culture novels.Facebook 30 Day Book Challenge Day 5: Book you wish you could live in.