Some people decide what to read next based on a strictly-delineated list of selections that has already been pre-decided. Others stand in front of a bookshelf and randomly pick out something to read. Yet more start a series, and do not give up until they get to the end (or at least as far as the most recent book, if the series is still ongoing). I, for my part, tend to make my choices based on my emotional state after finishing a book. Having just come off a very emotional trip with N.K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of Gods, the last book in her Inheritance Trilogy, I found myself wanting some time to give my heart a chance to heal. I delved into some non-fiction, but could not find it in myself to go back to fantasy, so I decided that it was high time I picked up something in the science fiction vein, but I was then diverted by Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. Willig’s series is lighthearted and fun, so it was no chore to clear through all the books of the series and manage to get caught up with the latest release.
With that done – and with a much lighter heart – I decided I could go back to reading some serious sci-fi, and decided that it was as good a time as any to go back to Iain M. Banks’ Culture series – especially since he passed away recently. Since I’d already read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, the next book in the series was Use of Weapons, which is often heralded as a fan favorite. And having just finished it, I think I can see why it would be a favorite of Culture readers, especially since I’ve already read two other Culture books before it.
Use of Weapons is set in Iain M. Banks’ sprawling Culture universe – the Culture being a post-scarcity utopian society made up primarily of humans and sentient AIs, along with any other societies that may have chosen to embrace the Culture’s ideals and ideas. The most intelligent of the AIs, called Minds, govern the Culture for the most part, and since this is a post-scarcity utopian society, people can have anything they want and do anything they want with very little to no consequences. Crime has been eliminated, and children born under the auspices of the Culture have to be taught what poverty and class are, because there is absolutely no conception of such things whatsoever in the Culture itself.
What makes the Culture interesting, however, is that for all its seemingly utopian existence and ideals, it is an expansionist society, which means that it absorbs other societies into itself – though it would prefer to frame itself as philanthropic, because expansionism has connotations of violence the Culture does not prefer to use when referring to its relations with other civilizations. Given this veil of philanthropy, the Culture makes use of an organization called Contact, whose task is – obviously – to make first contact with other civilizations, and to either shape said civilization according to the Culture’s ideals, or to market the Culture’s ideals to them so that said civilization will consider joining up. However, when first contact doesn’t go as peacefully as it should, or it’s not going to Contact’s liking, Contact will send in agents from an even smaller and very secretive division within its ranks, called Special Circumstances. SC agents specialize in the things the Culture does not approve of, such as assassination, economic collapse, and war in all its brutal and subtle variations. Many of these agents are from the Culture itself, but oftentimes SC will employ agents not from the Culture’s ranks – such as Cheradenine Zakalwe, the main character of the novel.
What makes Use of Weapons different from the previous two novels is its narrative structure. It operates on two story lines: one that details Zakalwe’s current mission, and another that consists primarily of flashbacks to previous missions – though specifically to moments when he tries to retrieve memories of a particularly traumatic event that is only revealed at the end of the novel. The chapters alternate with one another: flashbacks are identified by chapter headings using Roman numerals counting backwards from XIII to I, while the ones about the current mission have spelled-out chapter headings from “One” to “Fourteen.” It can be fairly easy to get turned around if one does not pay attention to the chapter headings, but once one gets the hang of them they make for a very interesting effect, as the transition from one to the other is often linked to Zakalwe being asleep, unconscious, or deep in reminiscence – precisely the moments when memory is most prone to ambushing a person.
As for the characters, they are an exceptionally fun bunch to read about, as well. Banks seems to specialize in totally and utterly torturing his protagonists (like Horza in Consider Phlebas and Gurgeh in The Player of Games), and poor Zakalwe is no different. Aside from the physical and mental strain of his job as an agent for SC, his own memories are quite terrible and cause him a great deal of psychological anguish – in particular, the one that lies at the very heart of all his other memories, the one he has studiously avoided up until the point that it is revealed in the novel. His handler, the Culture SC agent Diziet Sma, is interesting as well, primarily because she seems to be entirely aware of what the mission is doing to Zakalwe’s psyche, but pushes him into it anyway. This makes her a very interesting illustration of the tension the Culture engenders in those who work for it: they believe they are doing something for the greater good, but the smarter ones like Sma are also aware of what they are doing to the people they throw into the front lines.
And then there is Skaffen-Amtiskaw, Sma’s drone partner. Though it doesn’t take center-stage, it might be considered the sole source of humor in the entire novel, and is in its own way an illustration of the Culture’s lighter – and deadlier – side. Though Skaffen-Amtiskaw might be considered funny due to its sarcastic sense of humor, there’s no denying that it’s deadly, as well: Skaffen-Amtiskaw is a heavily weaponized drone (as is typical for drones working in SC), and Sma has explicitly ordered Skaffen-Amtiskaw that it cannot use its weapons unless expressly ordered to, due to an incident wherein Skaffen-Amtiskaw rescued Sma, but in such a manner as to leave her traumatized. Though Skaffen-Amtiskaw doesn’t understand the logic behind Sma’s ordered, it obeys them anyway out of respect and fondness for her – an indication of the level of intelligence AIs have in the Culture universe. Other examples of these hyper-intelligent (and very funny) AIs include the Mind of the ship Xenophobe, as well as the passing mention made of Minds choosing to name the ships they are put in with some very interesting names: for instance, the Xenophobe itself is named in a tongue-in-cheek manner, given that it’s a ship meant for diplomatic missions. There’s also mention of one ship that’s eighty kilometers long, and is named Size Isn’t Everything. If humor is an indication of sentience, then the AIs of the Culture universe are very definitely sentient.
As for the plot itself, it felt reminiscent, oddly enough, of Skyfall, the most recent James Bond movie. Zakalwe himself is kind of like James Bond and does what he does (including the disappearing act Bond pulls early in the movie), while Sma and Skaffen are rather like M and Q, providing Zakalwe with the mission details and the tools he needs to get the mission done. Even Zakalwe’s traumatic past is similar to Bond’s in Skyfall, albeit far, far worse.
However, as with the previous two novels, the plot and the characters are there to support a greater theme – in this case, the idea that interference might not necessarily be the noblest thing, even if it seems that interference is being carried out for the right reasons. This is made explicit in a conversation between Zakalwe and Tsoldrin Beychae, wherein Beychae shows (or reminds, rather) Zakalwe of the duality of the Culture’s policy, especially when it comes to Contact and SC. I see this as an extension of the ideas explored in The Player of Games, wherein Gurgeh is used like the cultural equivalent of a tactical nuke, destroying an entire civilization from the inside. The “weapons” in the title of the novel are not just the ships and guns and knife missiles that the Culture uses (while at the same time keeping secret or denying their use), but the way it uses its own ethos to get the results it deems suitable according to its own ideals – even if that means starting wars and ending lives.
Overall, Use of Weapons is another great title in the series, and I can see why it is a fan favorite. Zakalwe is an interesting character with a heartbreaking past (which has a twist which is hinted at but then revealed so beautifully – or horrifically, depending on one’s view of the matter), and Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw are excellent foils through which the reader can better grasp the light and the dark sides of the Culture. I am aware that these books are meant to stand alone, but I think reading the first two novels helps in grasping the concepts in this book. It did not make the same impact on me as The Player of Games, but it is an excellent read nevertheless.