Cheradenine Zakalwe is a (non-Culture-born) agent in Special Circumstances, skilled in steering less-developed planets towards the path that the Culture thinks is best for them. Unlike most SC agents, Zakalwe's speciality is fighting and the use of weapons in both prosecuting wars, and averting conflicts. His handler is SC agent Diziet Sma who, along with her drone companion Skaffen-Amtiskaw, has to set out to locate Zakalwe when his abilities are needed again.
I've read enough of Iain Banks' other work to be able to say that Use of Weapons is almost certainly his masterpiece, which is really saying something compared to the high quality of his other novels. In this book everything just works. The characters are sublimely handled, with Banks immersing you in their lives to the point where you stop thinking of them as characters and instead accept them as people. The structure of the story is inventive without over-relishing its own cleverness. The chapters alternate between a forward-moving story about Diziet tracking down Zakalwe for a new mission, and how that mission unfolds, and a backwards-moving one as we follow Zakalwe's story back to his youth. Just to shake things up, both narratives also feature flashbacks to earlier events as well. The structure could have confusingly imploded in on itself (and earlier drafts stretching back fifteen years before it was published are apparently far more complex), but in the published book it works effortlessly. The storylines may be moving in different directions and feel dislocated from one another, but they collide with impressive force at the end of the novel in a stunning final chapter.
Banks' signature creation, the Culture, has never been so convincingly portrayed or as well-handled as in this book, and its total bafflement at Zakalwe's antics (personified by Skaffen-Amtiskaw's exasperation with events) is amusing to see. In fact, there's a lot of Banks' traditional black humour running through the book, lightening the gloom that threatens to descend during some of Zakalwe's more introspective moments.
Use of Weapons (*****) is a spectacularly good science fiction novel that addresses questions of memory, motivation, guilt and conscience in a consistently entertaining and sometimes very funny manner. A masterful novel from a writer at the very height of his powers, and highly recommended. The novel is available now from Orbit in the UK and USA.
on 17 September 2007
Dark, complex, full of twists, featuring unlikeable characters in almost unremittingly bleak circumstances. Great.
Do you like heroes? Plots where good and evil are easily distinguished? Straightforward, linear narratives? That's not here.
The book is like Marmite - there are those that loved it and those that hated it. The reviews from those that hated it make the same complains - basically the reasons I list for it being a great book in the first sentence.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, buy the book, it is the best of its kind. If it's not your thing, don't buy it, it's the worst of its kind.
Personally I think it's Banks' best.
on 12 April 2012
I've read this book three times - the last time only a few years ago. I think it is Banks' richest Culture novel, but perversely, the least approachable at first, simply due to its apparently bizarre structuring. The first time I read the book, I read it in traditional linear fashion from front to back, but because one story line goes forward and the other backwards, this soon gets confusing, especially with all the mid-chapter flashbacks. After finishing the book for the first time, I found myself wondering "What the hell was that all about?" Flash forward a few years to when I had just moved house, and as I was unpacking my books, Use of Weapons lay there at the top of a pile of other books, sneering at me, goading me to read it again. So I did. The result was one of the best novels I've ever read - it took me many years to get that sort of payload out of it, but it was well worth the wait.
I suppose this sort of book, like a lot of so-called literary fiction, takes some work before it clicks. The subconscious has to have time to piece together the "fragmentary wholeness" and realise the author's true intent. The experience for me on that third and final read was like seeing a jumble of light and colours coming rapidly into focus to form a beautiful picture, or seeing a great painting emerge from one of Rolf Harris' wall-sized paintings done with decorating brushes on his TV show circa 1968 or so.
You don't merely read Use of Weapons - you work with it. Like a lot of art that is Modernist inspired, you have to think about this one, otherwise it seems just a load of disjointed nonsense with the odd exciting scene or two. Once you get the book on the mat and suck the full meaning from it, the seemingly strange structuring makes sense and you get Banks' most three-dimensional and sympathetic character in Cheradanine Zakalwe. You also get one of the most well-structured (and heart-rending) twists in a plot structure you're likely to find in any novel. Let's put it this way, you'll never look at a chair in the same way again.
One more thing. If you read the novella "The State of the Art" first, this will tell you more about Diziet Sma and Skaffen Amtiskaw. In this way, you're better prepared for Use of Weapons.
Many other reviews of 'Use of Weapons' will hint at its parallel linear/reverse linear narrative, the nature and occupation of the complex and not-very-nice Mr Zakalwe, the beautifully painted Culture, and the terrific hat joke, but I think they miss the visceral nature of the book.
There's a page thumbed down in my much-read edition that describes the origin and nature of a certain chair - the central metaphor of the book. Even as I write about it, my hackles are starting to rise at the thought of what this character did. And yet I liked him, loved the Culture and are lost in awe at Mr Banks' grasp of his art.
There are very few science fiction books that stand up as good literature - this is certainly one of them. Even though I had nightmares for weeks, thank you Iain, for this and for Consider Phlebas (PS I >hated< 'Canal Dreams').
Shortly after reading Consider Phlebas (The Culture), the first in Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, I realised I was left with the fantastic task of discovering the rest of this perfectly visualised science fiction universe. Use of Weapons, the third in the stand alone series, was recommended to me as the one I should read next.
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 (The Culture) makes an excellent starting point and, after that, the world is your oyster.
on 19 February 2011
This book is one of the most intelligent Scifi reads I've ever had. Although harsh in it's outlook, and pretty shocking in its depictions of the behaviour of a culture for whom there is no disease, no restrictions on morality and even mortality it's self is avoidable, it does not cheapen such with overly graphic sordid detail. Instead things are largely there to show how alien the whole culture is to what we know, and indeed the to main character, whos background is closer to WW2 tech, than scifi.
The character development is handled in a very unusual way, with seemingly random snatches of the protagonists life coming up chapter by chapter, revealing a little more of his reasons for being as he is. the lack of linearity in the story because of this is a very marmite thing, with many hating it, but many of us loving it.
Then there is the ending... those that call it a cheap trick of a surprise have not been paying enough attention, yes there is the fairly obvious switch there that was a good suprise nonetheless, but the subtle play around with your perception of the sequence of events I thought was a very nice touch (for those of you that missed it, it's to do with the guy's hair... think about it and read the first chapter again! :))
One of Ian Banks Best novels in either his scifi or straigh fiction writing. And yes, he's not to everyones taste, the names are irritating at times being virtually impossible to pronounce, the Tech level of the Culture is at times somewhat over-the-top and godlike, but that does not detract from what is, all in all a very well realised, complex and satisfactory story.
If you don't mind thinking for yourself while you read, and enjoy a slightly more challenging and meaty read than most, there's a very good chance you'll love this book. I still do!
Iain (M) Banks third Culture novel in some ways mirrors his previous novel The Player of Games. As with that novel this story is concerned with the Culture’s use of a human agent to influence the direction of another society, but this time featuring a man of war rather than a more benign games player. Use Of Weapons is primarily an exploration of this agents character and the dark secret that lies in their past. This is above all a brilliantly constructed novel, with alternating chapters exploring the character in two different narratives – one moving forward with the characters latest mission for the Culture, and the other moving backwards through numerous previous missions, all the time hinting at some dreadful secret – it is only in the final chapter that this secret is finally fully uncovered, with a beautiful twist ending that changes the nature of much of what came before (and – unlike The Wasp Factory – a twist that I hadn’t spotted a hundred pages earlier).
Quite a dark and sombre novel, Use of Weapons nonetheless has enough action to keep the reader interested, while the books focus on character over hard-sf technology and heavy plotting makes this an excellent choice for readers of Banks non-genre work interested in sampling his science fiction output.
As "The Bridge" set the tone for all the mainstream fiction Banks was to write, so this set the bar for all his subsequent science fiction. And it set that bar quite high.
Like all his novels, genre and otherwise, it revolves around a protagonist with a back story that slowly unfolds - but this is really quite a stark and horrific back story. It is about war and the evil that men do in the name of war, ideology, religion and power, and in a curious way how some men seek to atone for the sins of war through further violence.
At that level this could be a mainstream novel, so that while the science fiction backdrop gives Banks more room to manoeuvre, it is secondary to its exploration of the character and origins of the central protagonist, Zakalwe. In him we look into the heart of how and why wars are fought, and our own darkest motivations.
The novel also introduces us to two of Banks's more memorable Culture characters - the Special Circumstances arch manipulator, Diziet Sma and her coleague/handler/bodyguard, the anarchic and irreverent drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw. The latter's much talked about "hat joke" is genuinely funny yet cruel.
But as all three protagonists use others as weapons in the wars they fight in the name of the Culture's high mined principles, they are themselves just weapons being used and discarded as needed by the Culture' quasi military intelligence Special Circumstances section.
The echoes with current wars being fought by the West are strong, but this novel was written over a decade before The War on Terror began. This is science fiction at its most adult - exploring ideas through character development rather than crash bang action, which puts it ahead of the field not just in contemporary SF, but against much of Banks's subsequent writing.
Oh, and it is well worth reading more than once.
on 5 September 2000
This book is by far the best book I've ever read. My copy is seriously well worn. I don't know anyone who has been able to read this book only once!
However, I would recommend anyone planning on reading this book make sure they know a bit of Culture background by reading a couple of his other books such as Consider Phlebas and the excellent Player of Games before undertaking this fabulous story.
Having read his entire series of books, I find myself at a loss. I search desperately for another series of books that can come even close in quality to either of the Banks series (sci-fi or contempory) and as yet have failed. So I have to hang around for a year reading garbage until the next Banks book comes out... Keep 'em coming Iain!
on 4 July 2006
As the first strand of the narrative rushes forwards in the present, the second strand twists backwards, into the past and into the formative episodes of Zakalwe's life. When it reaches the core of his past, you see that the story you thought you'd read has another, and very different, cast to it, like a face-or-vase illusion.
A disturbing, haunting, and fascinating book that demands to be re-read from time to time. Banks has one hell of an imagination.