The Culture novels by Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks are stand alone stories taking place within the titular universe, an egalitarian interplanetary utopia in which capitalism, disease, and (to an extent) even death no longer pose a problem to humanity. Although each book has a different storyline with a separate set of characters, it is often recommended that The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas be read before the more complex Use of Weapons. Having read the former earlier this year, it is the more accessible novel for newcomers to the series and a better introduction to the Culture since it has more examination of the society and an easy-to-follow yet intelligent storyline. (It is also my favorite of the two although I enjoyed them both.) Use of Weapons is more difficult to read with its utilization of a fractured timeline and is a more of a character study than a social study. However, Use of Weapons is a brilliant and rewarding novel and I am very glad it was recently released once again in the United States.
Diziet Sma is interrupted from her party by news from the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw: she must leave the very next morning to retrieve Cheradenine Zakalwe for a very important mission. Zakalwe, a man of many talents who is occasionally employed by the Culture as a last-resort problem solver, had forged a peace many years ago on a distant planet. Following the premature retirement of President Tsoldrin Beychae, the power who had been holding together the strained peace that Zakalwe created, intensifying local strife is now threatening to break out into a larger regional conflict. Beychae must be pulled from his comfortable retreat if the planet is to have any hope of regaining stability, and Zakalwe is the only man who can find him and convince him that he is needed. But before Zakalwe can convince Beychae to return to the presidency, first Sma and the smart-ass drone must convince Zakalwe to return to service.
Each chapter in Use of Weapons alternates between two different storylines, one that is sequential beginning with Diziet Sma’s quest to enlist Zakalwe to the cause of the Culture once again and another that moves backwards throughout various points in Zakalwe’s life. The prologue and epilogue also deal with a separate storyline involving Zakalwe. Because of the sequence of events, this is a book that cannot be read passively but requires some attention from the reader.
There is a twist at the very end that I did not see coming at all (don’t worry, there is no way I will spoil the fun by revealing it!). It completely changes the perspective of the entire novel, meaning it would be a great book to read again once you know how it ends. I suspect everything would tie together much better during a reread between this surprise conclusion and the unordered chapter structure.
Banks creates a nice balance between conciseness and description. His writing is not dense yet his depictions of simple subjects add beauty to the story. I particularly loved this line on the very first page about the appearance of a glass held up to the sun:
The glass sparkled like a hundred tiny rainbows, and minute twists of bubbles in the slender stem glowed golden against the blue sky, spiraling about each other in a fluted double helix.
Zakalwe is a fascinating, complex character who is not at all static – a very intelligent, competent outworlder hired by the Special Circumstances division of the Culture to do their dirty work. This role also creates a rather interesting ethical dilemma about the utopia. It is against violence yet is uses Zakalwe and arms him in order to achieve certain ends on planets that are not a part of the Culture.
Use of Weapons is a clever story that slowly discloses the various pieces until the stunning final revelation that changes everything. I highly recommend it to readers looking for a thoughtful novel that will leave them pondering once they have put the book down.
Review of other books in this series:
The Player of Games