Special Circumstances is a division of Contact
in Iain M. Banks
novels. Almost all of his novels involve Special Circumstances operations, in which humanoid and machine operatives are required to do some go into a dangerous situation to keep another species from becoming a threat to the future or present security of the galaxy.
SC is the more specifically the dirty tricks division of Contact, when SC is called in it means that people are probably going to die and a far greater number of people are in danger of dying or when people who don’t need to know that the Culture is involved in something are involved in that thing and are in danger of knowing.
Living in the Culture is like a permanent retirement for all of its members. They get the full use of resources that their luxurious and gigantic living environments have, to the point where one member had a wind based tram system built in an uninhabited section of his Orbital or another who spent her/his time drawing up plans for floating islands. So why would someone with the automatic life of a millionaire, want to be thrust into potentially volatile situations such as those that Contact deals with on a general basis or the highly volatile life of a spy in a backward sword and church gown society?
The simple answer is, because they care. Amongst this multi-quadrillion strong utopian civilization of smart nice people there are a small group of fairly eccentric people who decide to go and spread the good news as it were, to help other civilizations move toward the sort of utopia that they themselves enjoy. The really eccentric weirdos in this group go and join SC, so they can go and fix those rare times when regular Contact screws up big time.
In Banks's Use of Weapons agents of SC must race against time to bring another agent out of retirement so that he can help stop a war from breaking apart the work he’d previously done on a world that had made it into normal galactic life but was not beyond attempting to destroy itself with civil war. This is probably the best book to learn about the inner workings of Special Circumstances because it is about this agent’s life, the missions he’d been on, the people he’d met and worked with and for, and the good and evil he had done. It was a portrait of the sort of person who is perfect for SC or a mental ward. And make no mistake, that is the inclusive ‘or.’
During the childhood of the main character, his parents take him and his siblings to learn a trade, he opted to learn how to make chairs. His family was fairly wealthy and the idea of learning to manufacture seemed odd to him, but his father prevailed upon him the importance of learning do something by himself without concern for his wealth. Later, on a GSV that acted as a mobile shipyard, numerous citizens help work on the ships that are being produced, when queried they responded with the same sentiment. Use of Weapons in the end, does a good job showing the sinister side of learning how to make chairs, and in so doing manages to convey the darker side of a utopia that exports happiness.