Two things stuck out to me as I read: the overt sexual politics and the narrative strategy.
The sexual politics: this is a novel about a member of an enlightened, tolerant society who finds himself in a place where power is structured sexually. What’s interesting here is that readers–American, British, Canadian, in other words, Western Anglo–will likely identify with the protagonist, the member of the Culture confronted with alien sexuality. And yet, those readers are not like the protagonist. They are like the alien culture. Our society is sexist, like theirs. Our sexism is arbitrary, like theirs. It is held up by and holds up religious and political institutions. In the Culture, sex does not operate as a fundamental distinction between people because all people can and most people do switch from one sex to the other and back again. This is queer transsexual liberation operating from the centre as a norm rather than from the margin as critique. It’s like watching the queen of Canada sniff into her teacup with disdain at someone who’s too bigoted to consider a sex change.
The final scene in the novel makes the implications of this approach to sex and sexuality material. The protagonist, home again, discovers that a former female lover has been living as a man while he was away but is transitioning back to a female body. This lover’s body is at a stage where it lacks anything but ambiguous, rudimentary genitalia. Yet these two, happy to be together for the night and with no plans for anything to carry over beyond that night, don’t care and aren’t hindered. What matters to them in that moment is each other and not each others’ bodies. It’s a powerful scene.
(Incidentally, this disruptive sexuality is matched by an equally disruptive anti-racism: the members of the Culture are brown-skinned and are genetically modified to allow them to mate with other species. Their adaptability is grounded on the embrace and celebration of miscegenation.)
I have less to say about the narrative. I’ll just point out that as is the case with The Use of Weapons, there is a discovery at the end of the novel that changes the meaning and implications of what has gone on before. This discovery is not as meaningful as the one in The Use of Weapons–the alien culture’s game is an allegory of their society and a tool for organizing society–but it is a nice way to end the book and once again serves as a demonstration of Bank’s control over his material.