Rankopedia ranks Iain Banks’ 1990 Use of Weapons as his best work, even in comparison to his mainstream fiction. Such lists generally favoring entertainment over content, it was a pleasant surprise to find the novel both a complex narrative and multi-layered examination of character. Excession may take the Culture cake for sheer imagination, but Use of Weapons unearths the dark corners of the human psyche in a fashion that allows the novel to vie for the top of Banks’ sci-fi.
Use of Weapons is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a mercenary regularly employed by Culture’s Special Circumstances as a manipulator of local politics in less-developed areas or as an outright soldier, depending on the need. Wanting only rejuvenated youth, money, and the knowledge of where his long-lost sister is in return, Zakalwe is time and again inserted into situations the Culture are trying to discreetly twist in their favor.
At the beginning of the story, special agent Diziet Sma (of The State of the Art fame) tracks down Zakalwe for yet another mission, this one involving the extraction of a scholar who wields political influence in a system currently under pressure to join the Culture. Lured by the idea they have at last located his sister, Zakalwe once again gives over his unique talents as leader and fighter and heads to the scene undercover to influence matters as the Culture sees fit. This mission, however, may be different than the hundreds coming before.
But this is only half the story; Use of Weapons is told in alternating chapters. Those numbered “One”, “Two”, etc. describe the above mentioned tale. The other half describes episodes from Zakalwe’s past. Identified by Roman numerals counting backwards, these chapters are anything but linear. They include love affairs, his first encounter with the Culture, flashbacks to childhood and previous missions—successful and otherwise. These scenes, in addition to fleshing out Zakalwe as a world weary warrior, present the themes Banks has set, including war (particularly its futility), justice, cultural intrusion, guilt, man’s propensity to violence, as well as existential concerns. This unique structure of narrative, alternating past/point with present/counter-point, makes the novel eminently re-readable.
Another strength of Use of Weapons is that it uses science fiction motifs to human effect; the rejuvenation, time lapses, biological/psychological possibilities, and all other manner of post-human intervention bring into a stronger light the inner struggles, desire for freedom, joys, and sense of fate Zakalwe has as an individual. On one hand robustly full of life, his devil-may-care attitude sits diametrically alongside his opposed yet complementary tendency toward ennui, depression, and detachment, particularly as he witnesses violence and corruption time and again. While this may seem to support a nihilist view, rest assured that by the end of novel Banks has presented Zakalwe such that his humanity steals subtly in, empathy surging backward through the story as the reader learns a surprising truth of his life on the book’s last few pages.
Written in a style that works well with Banks’ proclivities as an author, the only grumble regarding the novel is its sensationalist elements. In fact a complaint regarding almost all of Banks’ fiction (beginning with The Wasp Factory), there are a couple of scenes which seem macabre merely to be macabre, getting a reaction the only objective. Use of Weapons is the only Culture novel which feels as much mainstream as it does sci-fi. If this can be overlooked, then little else can be picked on.
In the end, Use of Weapons is probably the best novel published in the Culture series to date from the perspective of human interest. While other Culture offerings contain more entertainment (Matter) or imaginative elements of far-future tech (Excession), Use of Weapons looks squarely at the human condition in all its ugliness and glory. Not entirely realist, sci-fi tropes prop the story up in literary fashion, adding a nice touch of originality that drive the thematic elements home. Marking a major turning point in the Culture series, Banks abandons the linear, single-character viewpoints of Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and moves on to a more ambitious narrative structure. Thus, readers who dislike multiple points-of-view and plots that move out of sequence, this book will not be for you. For everyone else, the book is a surprisingly subtle gem (despite those nagging sensationalist points) and one of the reasons Banks is a top writer of sci-fi.