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.