I've been taking advantage of a day & a half off work sick to finish some reading, and I started off by finishing off Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This is the third novel in his "Culture" series, set in a future galaxy in which a very powerful offshoot of humanity -- The Culture -- interacts with other species and other branches of the human race, not always to everyone's benefit.
The Culture is a post-scarcity society -- thanks to matter- and force-field manipulation technology, there is no shortage of anything at all. The Culture regularly builds Nivenesque ringworlds (large habitable circular bands in orbit around a star), Dyson spheres (habitable spheres that totally enclose stars), and similar gigantic strutures.
In fact, the overall technological details of Banks's Culture books have a very strong Larry Niven flavour -- not just the megastructures, but the more personal-sized weapons, force-fields, transport pods, and so forth. About the only thing missing is any indestructable substances like the General Products Hull.
The other major influence on Banks seems to be Isaac Asimov's robots. Asimov broke with tradition when it came to writing science fiction about robots -- which focused almost exclusively on Frankenstein scenarios -- and wrote instead about robots designed to be beneficial, and safe, to human society (a rather major point missed out in the recent I, Robot movie, which apparently went for the Frankenstein approach).
In Banks's Culture, artificial intelligent entities are recognized as sentient members of society -- an approach definitely in line with Asimov's.
Use of Weapons follows the activities of an agent of the Culture, Zalakwi, whom the Culture employs to manipulate wars and battles to help move societies in directions to the Culture's liking (no Prime Directive here -- or, at least, none as absolute as the Star Trek one!). Between the chapters of this story are flashback chapters (numbered downward in Roman numerals, to distinguish them from the main story) which cover Zalakwi's backstory -- how he came to work for the Culture, some of his previous missions, and the origin of his fear of chairs.
The book ends with a bit of a twist, which makes going into detail about these a little problematic, so I won't. I will say that Zalakwi's the most interesting of the protagonists in the three Banks Culture novels I've read, and the book is the most engaging of the three. In Consider Phlebas, the shape-changing protagonist (who opposed the Culture and its agenda, with some good arguments on his side) was not a very sympathetic fellow, and the rest of the cast weren't much better. The game player in The Player of Games was easier to identify with, but a professional player of complicated board games isn't exactly someone to keep the pace exciting (though I did enjoy the book a lot).
In fact, I've enjoyed each Culture book more than the last, so I'm looking forward to grabbing the fourth one, Excession, once I find a copy in the shops.
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