Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons is the third CULTURE novel. For those not in the know, the Culture is an intergalactic paradise run by its extremely sophisticated machines. Its people are augmented so that they are able to control and enhance every function their body serves. Life in the Culture is pretty great, and so stories are rarely set there.
Fortunately for Banks, things occasionally get a little hairy on the distant edges of the Culture when it is forced to interact with other societies. When those moments of contact go poorly, the Culture relies upon Special Circumstances to figure things out.
Enter the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma, and Cheradinine Zakalwe, our hero and their agent on the ground. Before Special Circumstances recruited him, Zakalwe was a soldier on a distant world. Usually when someone writes “enter the drone…” in a review of science fiction, we expect to see a summary of a pretty cool intergalactic conflict. If we’re lucky, there will be lasers. However, while Use of Weapons is a Special Circumstances novel, it is not really about an epic intergalactic conflict involving lasers. (There is a conflict, but it’s not especially epic.) The Culture is simply too powerful for other societies to challenge them every other novel.
Banks does not seem to mind that his perfect, all-but-omnipotent Culture prevents him from writing about grand conflicts. After all, in the second CULTURE novel, The Player of Games, Special Circumstances sends Jernau Gurgeh to Azad to undermine its culture of… Azad playing. Given that it is also a Special Circumstances novel, I expected Use of Weapons to follow a similar structure: Zakalwe would be sent to massage some uprising that one of the Culture’s sentient ships was too powerful to handle deftly, and his efforts would provide a focus for the Culture’s might and the novels’ narrative.
Instead, Use of Weapons just focuses on the unusual life of Cheradinine Zakalwe – his enemies are barely worth mentioning, though he does have some. The novel contains two narratives. The first moves chronologically: Diziet Sma recruits Zakalwe and sets him on his latest adventure. There is a healthy dose of Die Hard in this narrative, including a few scenes about plasma rifles. The second narrative is a dark, dream sequence that moves in reverse-chronological order, “starting” after Zakalwe has left Special Circumstances and “ending” before he joins. In between, Zakalwe spends a lot of time recuperating from injuries and enjoying flashbacks. The two narratives come full circle by the novel’s end in a way that should surprise and satisfy most SFF readers.
My favorite part of the novel may have been when Zakalwe first decides whether or not to work for the Culture. They pay well, but they are ruthless. And they do not always ask their agents to support the “right” side, nor will they tell you whether they want you to support the side that they want to win. In spite of the warnings, Zakalwe agrees to be one of their weapons in the field.
Use of Weapons is often held up as Iain M. Banks’s greatest CULTURE novel. While I admired it structure, I struggled to engage with its characters. I couldn’t help comparing Jernau Gergeh to Diziet Sma and Cheradinine Zakalwe while reading. Gergeh was from the Culture, but there was something rough about him that allowed him to succeed outside of the machine-run paradise. It provided a friction that explained why he would thrive as a Special Circumstances agent. Diziet Sma’s biggest problem, however, may be when her drone fails to record one of her orgies. (Skaffen-Amtiskaw also massacres a group of people at one point, which annoys Diziet but does not prevent her from forgiving the droid.) I struggled to understand why she would become the Culture equivalent of a secret agent. Zakalwe, meanwhile, has a touch too much (chronological narrative) action hero to really convince me that he has a (reverse chronological) tortured soul.
Although it is not my favorite entry so far in the series, Use of Weapons is often held up as one of Banks’s best works. It offers his usual strengths: tight prose, an unusual plot (there is even a costume party), and odd humor (at one point, for example, we meet a ship named Size Isn’t Everything). I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I reread the novel, I might form a stronger connection with its characters. However, unlike many other readers, I did not finish Use of Weapons determined to immediately read it again.
Use of Weapons (1990) is the third published novel in Banks’ Culture series, although it is actually a rewrite of a draft written much earlier that the author claims “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions.” Well, for readers who generally dwell in just three or four dimensions, the narrative structure of Use of Weapons is fairly complex until you get used to it.
The story has two narrative tracks, one set in the present and moving forward in time (Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc), and a second track set in the past and moving backwards in time (VIII, VII, VI, etc). Both tracks focus on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a man skilled in warfare and military tactics who is recruited by a Culture agent from Special Circumstances, Diziet Sma, to be a military operative in various non-Culture societies and conflicts.
For readers of the previous CULTURE novels Consider Phlebas (1987) and The Player of Games (1988), the Culture’s clandestine interference in the affairs of various societies and worlds is familiar. As a post-scarcity utopian society run by super-intelligent AIs, the Culture sees its mission as trying to improve the lot of less developed societies. However, it generally pursues this goal behind the scenes, choosing to manipulate different political groups and movements, but with the eventual goal of encouraging more peaceful and democratic societies.
However, and this is a big caveat, the means that the Culture employs are often underhanded, deceitful, and involve the use of various pawns to achieve ends often too complex for humans to understand. This is where the novel’s title comes into play, since Use of Weapons refers to so many things in the story, whether it is the use of actual weapons in conflicts, the use of operatives to achieve the Culture’s cryptic ends, or in the case of the novel’s central characters, the use of loved ones to achieve tactical victories.
Use of Weapons makes good use of its dual-track narrative structure to slowly explore the diverging character arcs of Zakalwe. The forward track follows Zakalwe as he is recruited out of retirement by Diziet Sma for “one last mission,” that old chestnut, to infiltrate a moderately-developed society and extract a former political player, Tsoldrin Beychae, who has retreated from society into solitary study. The professed goal of the mission is to reinvolve Beychae in a brewing political battle between pro- and anti-terraforming groups. The Culture wants the former group to prevail with the help of Beychae. Sma sets up Zakalwe with unlimited funds to establish an identity as a mysterious and wealthy individual called Staberinde.
The forward narrative shows us Zakalwe’s various stratagems and setbacks in trying to achieve the Culture’s missions, and it becomes clear that although he is very proficient in his job, he also harbors some deep-seated doubts about the merits of the Culture’s interference. This puts the readers in a conundrum, because Zakalwe has a very jaded attitude towards his mission, even as he battles assassination attempts and kidnappings etc. This basically serves to distance the reader from the events of the story, because if Zakalwe hardly cares about the outcome, then why should we? It is exactly this ambivalence about the Culture’s motives that differentiates Banks’ novels from traditional space opera with clear heroes and villains. While this certainly appeals to a small but devoted fanbase that revels in moral ambiguity and questioning of one culture’s right to interfere with another, it also makes it hard to root for the protagonist. The same criticism applies to Consider Phlebas, in which the protagonist is actually an agent of the Idirans fighting against the Culture.
Meanwhile, I found the backward narrative track more interesting, partly because it is unusual and disorienting to slowly trace Zakalwe’s character arc into his past. We are first shown repeated attempts by Zakalwe to settle down and live a peaceful life away from his warlike past, but these invariably fail, and as we delve further back, we see him involved in various military operations for the Culture, backing one side or the other, but always with the same sense of skepticism and detachment. Again, Banks seems determined to not let readers fall into that blissful dream-momentum that space opera affords.
Midway through the backward-moving story arc, we discover that Zakalwe was the scion to an important aristocratic family, and grew up with two sisters, Livueta and Darckense, and was later joined by a cousin, Elethiomel, with whom he has many conflicts as a rival, which are exacerbated when Elethiomel has an affair with his sister Darckense. Eventually Elethiomel betrays his adopted family to seize power, and he and Zakalwe find themselves on opposite sides of a bloody struggle for control. Although they are both brilliant military strategists, Elethiomel is the more ruthless of the two, and as we get closer to the end of the book, we discover he has made the ultimate Use of Weapons to defeat his rival.
A surprise twist actually follows right after the big reveal (don’t worry, I wouldn’t think of spoiling it!), and throws our entire understanding of Zakalwe’s character upside-down. It’s a pretty impressive trick, and even after thinking it through, the ramifications are profound for the entire story. Hats off to Banks for pulling the rug out so skillfully.
Use of Weapons is a meditation on war, guilt, redemption, cruelty and the moral ambiguity of the Culture’s meddling in the affairs of less advanced civilizations. For many readers this is one of the best CULTURE novels, and although I give full marks for the eloquent writing and complex structure, it would be hard to say that I enjoyed the book. It’s consistently dark tone was only occasionally broken up by the comic relief of the sarcastic drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw.
In retrospect, it is certainly a book that demands and rewards the reader’s close attention, but after reading it I feel a strong need for something lighter, and preferably a conventional forward-moving narrative. But I am glad that Banks was willing to produce intelligent work in the SF medium and prove that speculative fiction can indeed be literate, philosophical, and emotionally challenging.
Like Stuart, I like this a little better than Ryan does, I guess because I connected more with Cheradenine Zakalwe. I thought the flashback structure served to make him more relatable, and the twist at the end (beginning) of his story was horrifying. Use of Weapons also made me think about the ugliness of war, moral relativism, the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the power of guilt and redemption. It also has a nice discussion of an ethical situation that may be important to us someday: if computers are modeled after the human brain, why are they not considered sentient?