Use of Weapons
Use of Weapons is the third entry in Iain M. Banks' series about the Culture — although, in fact, its manuscript was the ﬁrst Culture material he wrote, with the Culture invented specifically as part of the backdrop for this story.
It is primarily the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, an agent for Special Circumstances — essentially the Culture's combination of intelligence agency and military organization, which manipulates events in foreign civilizations through subterfuge, political manipulation or outright military intervention. In keeping with the Culture's ethos, Special Circumstances will generally attempt to avoid violence — but sometimes, Special Circumstances meet special circumstances that warrant the … well, the use of weapons.
Since most biological Culture citizens live entirely non-violent lives and have no skill for, experience with or interest in combat, the Culture frequently recruits alien citizens into Special Circumstances, granting them a number of extraordinary privileges usually far beyond the reach of non-Culture citizens — clinical immortality, rejuvenation therapy, genetic modification, fantastic technology, or stupendous amounts of foreign currencies (the Culture itself being a post-scarcity society, it has no need for currency). Zakalwe is one such alien recruit. It's much like both Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games in that we mainly see the Culture from the outside (in Phlebas, the protagonist fought against the Culture; in Player, most of the story is set in an alien non-Culture civilization).
The two primary supporting characters are Diziet Sma, a Culture diplomat (who originally recruited Zakalwe) and Skaffen-Amtiskaw, a Culture drone (recall that Culture machine intelligences are full Culture citizens) who once saved her life during a particularly gruesome attack by violent offworlders during one of her diplomatic missions. The story follows two interlinked narrative threads that are temporally inverted: Where one progresses forward in time, the other progresses backwards. This caught me by surprise at ﬁrst, but it actually works very well.
The primary story (numbered in English, with ascending numbers - "one", "two", …) is concerned with Culture intervention in a politically unstable star cluster on the brink of war. Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw (and the crew of the Culture starship Xenophobe) are sent to ﬁnd Zakalwe, who retired from Culture service after his last job, in the hopes of recruiting him to, ahem, "influence" the situation there. This involves kidnapping a retired politician, dealing with assassination attempts, infiltrating the upper class and ﬁghting a military skirmish.
The secondary story (numbered in Roman numerals, in descending order - "XII", "XI", …) relates the story of Zakalwe's life, as a sequence of various memorable experiences of his. These range from the peaceful (the time where he briefly attempted a career as a poet) to the gruesome (the time where he survived a ritual decapitation).
The two threads collide masterfully in the end, combining grand revelation and closure.
Highly recommended. I didn't like it quite as much as The Player of Games, but still an excellent work.