Use of Weapons builds upon a premise set-up by Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games; in post-scarcity Utopia, where the citizens do not know of want, hunger, poverty, or any other kind of hardship, the one thing that they lack, the one thing that cannot be provided for them in their atheistic, hedonistic lives, is purpose. When everything is provided for you, how can your life feel important or necessary?
The Culture’s answer: bring enlightenment (secularism, socialism, democracy, etc.) to the rest of the galaxy. Very rarely will the Culture itself declare war to achieve this, as they did in Consider Phlebas. Instead they tend to use various covert means to interfere in other civilisations. Depending on the calculations of the hyper-intelligent AI’s which run the Culture, they may attempt to nudge the society in the ‘correct’ direction / install a slightly less brutal dictator / provoke or influence the course of wars / set-in-motion the complete annihilation of a specific regime, or even a way of life, as the did in Player of Games. And, if they deem the society ready, they will absorb the remains of the civilisation (for these interferences may cause the deaths of billions if they can be justified as being for the ‘greater good’) into the Culture itself. While the protagonist of the Player of Games was essentially an ignorant pawn in the Culture’s plan, Use of Weapons follows the willing participants of Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section, which is essentially their MI6 who are responsible for dealing with ‘the moral equivalents of black holes’; situations where the Culture’s usual rules cannot apply due to the infinite number of complex variables involved with realigning the political landscape of entire galactic clusters. Whether the Culture is right in this approach is clear to Banks himself (emphatically yes), but there’s more dispute around this question amongst his readers. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire series so I’ll dedicate a specific blog post to it after a couple more books.
Use of Weapons comprises of two separate narrative timelines, alternating by chapter – one strand going forward in time and the other going backwards, both leading to their own climax at the end of the novel. The forward strand follows a specific Special Circumstances mission to prevent the outbreak of a destabilising war in one cluster of the galaxy, while the backwards timeline delves into the past of the Culture mercenary hired to carry out this mission, Cheradnine Zakalwe. Though Zakalwe is far and above the most well-fleshed-out character so far, I was disappointed we didn’t get more the series’ first main female character (and most likeable of all of the main characters) Diziet Sma. Or her partner, for that matter (this novels’ resident Mind, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who I’m pleased to say is as quirky and funny as the Culture AI’s usually are). However, that highly likeable and entertaining characters don’t feature enough can only be a minor gripe.
One potentially much bigger problem with this book is that, once again, the stakes don’t feel very high – at least in regards to the main Special Circumstances mission. Just as the events in Consider Phlebas eventually felt completely minor to the result of the overall war, this mission is just another job to Zakalwe, even less important and / or less exciting than some previous missions depicted in the backwards timeline. This is perhaps a by-product of the very universe in which it these novels are set; when a civilisation about as omnipotent as any sentient beings can become interfere with other societies as often as the Culture do, it eventually stops being a big deal. But more likely, in my opinion, is that this is intentional Banksian design, whereby we are supposed to feel that, yes, stopping the potential war in this specific cluster is basically meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And while this latter explanation certainly has a theoretical appeal, in reality it constricts the excitement of what might otherwise be much more thrilling action scenes. Billions of lives are at stake here but if things go wrong, does it really matter in the long run? In terms of the stakes not feeling high enough, it also doesn’t help that Zakalwe is at time a kind-of Action Man caricature; he comes across as the perfect, almost superhuman soldier / military strategist / special agent.
However, where Banks and Use of Weapons in particular excel is in themes and characters. The book’s title refers to one of the it’s major themes – the construction and use of weapons. And the deadliest weapons are the ones masquerading as something entirely different; the ship that isn’t a ship, the chair that isn’t a chair, the brother who isn’t a brother. Some people can use weapons others couldn’t even imagine.
Early on it is implied something happened in Zakalwe’s past which has changed him, or perhaps irreparably broken the man he was before the Culture found him. Whatever happened to Zakalwe caused him to put all his faith in the idea that when working for the Culture he was, at least, ‘doing the right thing’. Zakalwe is the kind of person who can make use of anything as a weapon, and his performance in war show that he’s too detached (& at times ruthless) to be able to make moral judgements about right and wrong himself, yet for some reason being ‘good’ remains important to him.
That’s all I can really discuss without getting into major spoilers. I’d be happy to write a spoiler-heavy post if there’s demand for it (though very few people read this blog, so I don’t know why there would be).
By it’s very nature Use of Weapons is a novel you must read a second time to fully appreciate. This time around I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but I expect a second read would easily push me to 5/5.
If you’re at all interested in the Culture series then you will definitely want to read Use of Weapons, though you certainly shouldn’t start with it. My advice would be skip Consider Phlebas, use Player of Games as an introduction, then perhaps move on to Use of Weapons. You might also consider giving Iain Banks blog post ‘A Few Notes on the Culture’ (which is far more than ‘a few’) a read, if you don’t mind a fairly extensive explanation of the universe he’s created before finding out about it in the books.
P.S.: The biggest mark against this Use of Weapons(from my admittedly biased perspective) is that it now makes three-for-three male Culture protagonists that I’m supposed to believe are straight. Come now, Iain, we all know everyone’s bisexual in the future!