Many people consider this to be the best book from The Culture series. Many more think it’s the most gut-wrenching book. I am simply amazed at the depth of characters, quality of writing and a story structure that was very difficult for me to read, but ultimately very rewarding. It is haunting, depressing and beautiful at the same time. This book cemented the author’s place among the best wordsmiths of his generation.
The Culture is a galactic civilization containing countless star systems, enormous, city-sized ships that travel between stars, and many more spaceships of all sizes and shapes. The society consists of two main distinct species: humans and sentient flying droids. With no serious external threat, inner peace, anti-aging technology and no scarcity, the humans became complacent and decadent. The droids seem to be the superior species but seem to tolerate the humans and even play a subservient role, limiting their rebelliousness to snarky comments and the occasional deliberate misunderstanding (or literal interpretation) or orders. However, there are still star systems outside the Culture, and the Contact department is dealing with these.
Contact, and in particular its Special Circumstances division, is trying to covertly influence the development of various worlds outside the Culture. One of their tasks is political interference, from getting the right faction into power, to quelling civil wars. Its operatives would be akin to economic hitmen of our own world: sent to a less developed country with plenty of financial or military resources, to covertly influence the political, military or economic environment in their target. One such operative is Cheradenine Zakalwe, who has seen more than enough fighting and political strife. He is one of the best operatives the Culture has, and he is also very tired of his work. He manages to disappear after a finished job and needs to be hunted down by his handlers, Diziet Sma and her droid, in order to start his next job. He is to infiltrate a local star cluster on the brink of war, and covertly push the locals towards peace. Zakalwe does so, at great personal costs: just when he does what he considers to be the right thing, his efforts are undermined or completely negated by the Culture. This is because Zakalwe is too invested into his job and his results are unexpectedly good. Towards the end, he leads a previously doomed army to an unexpected victory, and the Culture must step in directly to defeat that army, after they tell Zakalwe to evacuate from its headquarters. Zakalwe’s reward for all his personal sacrifices is seeing the utter defeat of the forces he brought to the brink of victory.
While this is playing out in a relatively straight-forward fashion, a series of flashbacks is explaining Zakalwe’s complex character to the reader. These are in a reverse order, going further and further into his past. Throughout his life, he has never been shy of using anything as a weapon, has mastered most of them, has been shot up multiple times and once even beheaded, but he is a deeply introspective character who got tired of fighting and is now unsuccessfully looking for a quiet life away from crowds and violence. He also has his personal demons: the sight of a chair triggers violent traumatic reactions in him, and his greatest fear is the mysterious figure of The Chairmaker. Zakalwe’s flashbacks slowly bring us closer to his personal demon, until we find out who he was and what role he played in Zakalwe’s past.
Iain M. Banks was a master worldbuilder who didn’t shy away from depressing stories and tragic characters. In his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, he had the protagonist suffer all his life, only to fail in the end to get justice. This book had such a large impact on me that I could not read fiction for some time, as I was afraid to once again see the protagonist suffer so much. The second Culture novel, The Player of Games, has a completely different vibe to it. It features massive worlds and colossal man-made structures, and an entire alien culture that was so well developed and explained that any reader could easily understand it. In the third book of the series, Banks returns to the tragic character, but his writing has greatly improved. Due to the vastness of the Culture, this story of a secret operative and his two handlers feels absolutely insignificant, even though an entire star cluster is at a stake. But this allows the author to take a very deep dive into character development. Sma is shallow, easily distracted by physical pleasure, but seemingly unconcerned about Zakalwe’s mental wellbeing while at the same time enormously worried about excessive force against some really despicable characters. Her droid seems to be more level-headed, with better priorities, but he hides his moral superiority with sarcasm and bad jokes. That leaves Zakalwe, who becomes more familiar to the reader than the reader himself. I felt that I didn’t psychoanalyze myself half as well as Banks psychoanalyzed Zakalwe.
The most compelling and tragic element of the book is the title itself. The use of weapons has several layers of meanings here. On the most basic level, Zakalwe is master in using various weapons. However, he also mastered the use of other objects in place of weapons. But are there ways to use objects that are other from bashing, stabbing or cutting? How about psychological warfare and how it affects both the recipient and wielder of the weapon? On a higher level, Zakalwe is using people as weapons. He commands armies, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but does not shy from sacrificing human life to further his goals. Ultimately, however, he is a weapon to be used by Sma, and she can be very indifferent in setting him aside when she doesn’t need his expertise.
In this particular book, the world and story aren’t as important as character examination. Still, I learned more about the Culture than from the previous two books. The difference in morality between Sma and her droid made me believe in the clear moral and physical superiority of the droids. The humans are mostly decadent, absent of a set of values that would make sense, and very dependent on outsiders like Zakalwe or the droids. They are like the citizens of the Roman empire, with the benefit of having benevolent robotic protectors. All that is glimpsed from the interaction between Sma and the droid (he has a name, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, but I’d be damned if I use it more than once in this review), which further points to the author’s brilliance with character development. The environmental descriptions of Zakalwe’s locations are rudimentary at best, just enough to paint a picture for the reader to know what’s going on. Various cultures from outside the Culture are also not all that well developed, but that doesn’t detract from the story.
The biggest challenge in reading this book is its structure. Books with flashbacks are common, but cases where the flashbacks go in reverse order are less so. To further confuse the reader, the Prologue and Epilogue are completely out of timeline with the main story and the flashbacks. For the first third of the book, I tried to identify the spot where the main story and the flashbacks intersect, and this took away my focus. I gave up then and let myself immerse into the two parallel stories. Banks is absolutely brilliant in his timing here. Just when you think you’ve received the gut punch in the main storyline, you’ll get punched again in the flashbacks. And just when you think you understand Zakalwe’s tragic past, you receive a killing blow that shatters all your preconceptions of the protagonist. And as if that wasn’t enough, if you pay attention to the Prologue and Epilogue, you’ll realize that there is no escape from his tragic life, and Zakalwe has to soldier on. For he is only a weapon to be used.
Reading Use of Weapons requires the full attention of the reader, due to its unorthodox structure. This attention pays off, as the reader gets to explore a literary character to great depths. This also pulls the reader extremely close for the emotional punches Iain M. Banks so ruthlessly delivers at the end. The writing, worldbuilding and characterization are all superb, but the quality of emotion the story and its ending invokes give this novel a quality very few other books achieve: the reader will remember how he felt reading Use of Weapons for a long time. And that’s what makes it a true classic.