Review Date: 05 March 1997
Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
MacDonald, 1990 (UK), 12.95 pounds
US Paperback Edition, Bantam Spectra 1992, $4.99 (ISBN: 0553292242)
Iain M. Banks is a Scottish writer, of several "mainstream" novels (albeit often with "slipstream" elements), published as by Iain Banks, and several SF novels (published with the middle initial). Banks has quite a reputation in the UK, stemming from the success of his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984). He seems less well-known in the US, but at least his SF books eventually make it across the pond, and I have been reading the SF novels over the past year or so. (Reviews of two of those novels appear elsewhere on this site.) Half by accident, half on purpose, I evolved a reading strategy which has led to me end up my reading of all the Banks SF novels available in the US as of last year with Use of Weapons, probably the consensus choice among Banks' readers as his best SF novel. (A new SF novel, Excession, was published last summer in the UK and is just now available in the States.)
As implied above, I approached Use of Weapons with high expectations, not always a good attitude. However, in this case my expectations were met. Use of Weapons is one of Banks' "Culture" novels: set within our Galaxy at approximately (to within plus or minus a millennium) the present time, and concerning the interactions of the Culture, an interstellar society composed mostly of humanoids and of a variety of AI machines, the latter often "drones" of (very roughly) human size and intelligence, or ship minds: of ambiguous size and enormous intelligence. Like all the Culture novels I've read, this one takes place mostly outside the Culture proper: because that is where the stories are. (The Culture is a utopia, so at least to a first approximation, everyone is happy, and there isn't much in the way of story-generating conflict.)
Use of Weapons is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a non-citizen of the Culture, who has been employed by the Special Circumstances branch of the Culture's Contact section as a mercenary, trying to influence conflicts on a variety of planets to be resolved in the direction the Culture prefers. As the main action of the story opens, Zakalwe has "retired" from SC. Diziet Sma, a Culture citizen who has been Zakalwe's "control" in the past, is rudely summoned from her latest (quite pleasurable) assignment in order to find Zakalwe and recruit him for one more emergency mission (involving a situation with which Zakalwe was previously involved).
From this point, the novel progresses in two main directions. The main branch of the story follows Sma forward in time, as she pursues and eventually finds Zakalwe, and as Sma and Zakalwe accomplish, in general terms, the mission on which the SC branch has sent them. This involves convincing a retired politician who supports the "right" side (anti-terraforming, pro-Machine Intelligence) of a conflict in an unstable star cluster to return to the arena and forestall a coming war, and then also involves some intervention in a "brushfire" which has broken out as a precursor to the war. This story is exciting and enjoyable, with plenty of Banksian action, Banksian scenery, and Banksian humor, the last as usual particularly embodied in the character of Sma's drone assistant, Skaffen-Amtiskaw. (Banks' machine characters are inveterate scene-stealers.)
The second plot thread moves steadily backward in time (complicated by a couple of even-farther backward flashbacks), following Zakalwe's career as an agent for SC, back to his recruitment by SC and his war experiences prior to that, and finally back to his formative years as an aristocrat of sorts on a planet with roughly 19th-20th century Earth technology and social structure. This thread allows us to slowly learn more of Zakalwe's character, and of the traumatic events which have made him the rather tortured individual he is at the time of the main action. Thus, the novel's structure is at first blush mildly experimental (there are actually four separate "threads" if one separates out the flashbacks as a thread, and if one considers the prologue and epilogue). However, this structure is really logical, and essential to the reader's experience. Essentially, the main action is illuminated by our growing understanding of Zakalwe's past. And the use of Sma as a viewpoint character (despite her somewhat non-centrality to most of the action sequences) is a vital strategy: in a sense, she becomes a stand-in for the reader: and part of our understanding of the novel is trying to understand Sma's feelings for Zakalwe (which are not romantic at all, by the way), and to measure her Use of the Weapon that is Cheradenine Zakalwe in the context of Zakalwe's humanness, and in a sort of parallel or contrast to Zakalwe's expert use of a variety of weapons.
The climax of the novel is a shocker (though I think it is guessable (I guessed it, anyway, though Banks kept me doubting)). However, it's not just a "surprise ending for the sake of the surprise". It's crucial to our understanding of the book: and it gives the book meaning far beyond the (very good) adventure story it has been up to that point. The climax seemed to reverberate back through the entire book, giving new meaning to almost every incident. This is a book which almost demands immediate rereading.
Ob-nitpicks: there are a couple of points where I don't think Banks plays quite fair with the reader in setting up the surprise (though this could be the result of insufficiently subtle reading on my part), also, I'm not sure I'm fully convinced by some of the changes in Zakalwe's character. These are very minor points indeed, however, and I recommend this book highly.
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