Shortly after reading Consider Phlebas, the first in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, I stood in a local bookshop, looked at some of the other novels in the series on the shelf, and I wished that I could absorb each and every astonishing word, scene, character, situation by osmosis. I knew that there were wonders in those pages and the faster I could discover them the better. Spontaneous absorption isn’t an option and so I’m left with the rather marvellous task of exploring this perfectly visualised science fiction universe at a human pace, book by book. Use of Weapons, the third in the stand alone series, was recommended to me as the one I should read next. An excellent recommendation.
Use of Weapons tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a soldier with a flair for tactics and strategy, who is selected (or one might say, saved) by Diziet Sma. She is a member of Contact, a part of the Culture’s Special Circumstances (think secret service) which aims to manipulate wars on less advanced worlds in order to bring about an outcome that benefits the Culture’s ideal of a peaceful universe. As the novel opens, however, Zakalwe has turned his back on the Culture and Sma has been told to uproot herself from her current pleasurable mission and seek him out so that he can bring out of retirement a politician known to him from earlier in his life who can put an end to another undesirable war.
This storyline, though, is just half of the tale. Mixed within it is a story in reverse, as we follow Zakalwe back through his life, back through the Culture missions that – to make matters even more interesting – are also referred to elsewhere. So, with one narrative travelling conventionally forward and with the other in reverse, with key events, circumstances or motifs hinted at in other pages, Use of Weapons is a remarkable portrait – with some parts distorted and others missing – of a tormented man.
Thanks to the Culture’s ability to rejuvenate the human body, Zakalwe survives more than a person should.The nature of his role determines that he exists almost exclusively in war, but, even so, he is regularly assaulted, once even having his body smashed and his head cut off. More than once, he finds himself with his memories incomplete and, as Zakalwe attempts to make sense of the circumstances and events that are pushing him though his life, he is confronted by images that haunt him. Chief among these is the chair and the Chairmaker.
As we journey with Zakalwe – and Sma – back through his life while trying to complete the mission assigned to him in the present, the foreboding mounts. The story in the present reaches its exciting climax at the same time that we reach the source of Zakalwe’s nature. By this stage, no-one will be able to prise Use of Weapons from your grasp.
As one expects from the Culture novels, Iain M. Banks has moulded a fully created universe. Landscapes, cities, starships are presented before our eyes and they are populated by men, women, drones, Minds and even multi-limbed aliens that are all different and complete. At times, they are also extremely funny. How can you not love a spaceship whose Mind believes that it is a cuddly toy and manifests itself as such just so it can be cuddled by its passengers? Then there’s Sma’s drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, that is in possession of not only deadly knife missiles but also a dry wit (the infamous hat joke is just one example). The humour extends through the names of ships and the ridiculousness of some of the situations – especially a party for those who have willingly dismembered themselves for a night of merriment thanks to the laser skills of a fashionable doctor. Horror and humour mix in parts of the novel while in others horror mingles instead with utter tragedy.
The entire book is enjoyable and exciting but the end is not only riveting, it is so mind boggling your first thought may well be an urge to read it again straight away. That second reading would be entirely different from the first. Use of Weapons is beautifully written and easily readable - its complexity is in the ideas – but it is extraordinary and fascinating.
Use of Weapons is as intricate as the Culture universe it depicts and so I wouldn’t recommend it as the first of the novels to read – Consider Phlebas makes an excellent starting point and, after that, the world is your oyster.