A collection, including the title novella and some assorted short fiction from banks.
Road of Skulls - more an introduction than a story,this short prelude is chock full of references, 'in'-jokes and served its purpose of making me go "OH YEAH! I am totally thrilled to be starting another book by Iain Banks!"
A Gift from the Culture - set in the 'Culture' universe (as one might have guessed from the title; most of the stories here can be construed to be set in the same universe, although they don't all specify it), this story introduces us to an individual who has chosen to leave the privileges and luxuries of that advanced, space-faring milieu behind in favor of living on a much more backward, violent planet. The conjunction of an ill-advised love affair and a mafia-like gang leads to the narrator being pressured to commit an act of terrorism. It's a great story, but it also feels like it only touches on the edge of things... I would not have been disappointed if this were the introduction to a novel.
Odd Attachment - It's a bit of a one-note joke story - but at the same time, it's genuinely funny, and awfully twisted. In a good way. And then, it also has the deeper theme of different perspectives...
Descendant - A spaceman is stranded far from his base. He has thousands of miles to walk to reach an uncertain refuge. He is alone - except for his spacesuit, which is so technologically advanced that it is a sentient intelligence in its own right. But it is damaged.
Cleaning Up - Mysterious and befuddling 'packages' containing alien technology start arriving on Earth. The government frantically tries to figure out how to deconstruct the technology; and what the purpose of these 'gifts' is. Can they be used to military advantage?
Piece - A non-sci-fi short on the topics of religion, science, and terrorism. Well-crafted.
The State of the Art - Sharing many of the same themes as "A Gift From the Culture"; this story also features a Culture citizen who wants to 'go native' and join life on a backwater planet. Only this time, the planet in question is Earth, circa 1977. The starship 'Arbitrary' is in orbit, considering whether or not to make contact. The ship insists that Diziet Sma (from 'Use of Weapons') go 'talk' to Dervley, who is on-planet, and has been refusing to check in or return to the ship. The bulk of the story is really a philosophical argument between the two characters points of view: Sma sees the benefits and privileges of living in the Culture; Dervley has fallen in love with the 'realness' of hardship and poverty, and sees 'aliveness' and beauty in the contrasts of Earth, in addition to being attracted to religious concepts. Banks, in this story, tries really, really hard not to construct straw-man arguments, and I believe he really does try to see Dervley's point of view and to present it fairly. But it's pretty clear, at the end of the day, that he's with Sma and the Culture. I think perhaps the strongest part of the story is the clear portrayal of that tragic feeling you're left with when faced with someone you love and care for who just does not see things from your point of view; and you believe that they are just utterly wrong; and moreover that their wrongness is self-destructive and harmful.
Scratch - The final piece in the book. Another non-sci-fi piece, giving another perspective on those aspects of life-on-Earth that Dervley found value in, and Sma did not. This is an experimental-almost-poem about English poverty and poverty of culture. It's not my usual kind of thing, but it's far better done than many writings of this type.