CBRIII Maneuver #1 – Use of Weapons
Target: Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Expanded Continuity
Summary: Taken from the back cover, “The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of Special Circumstances’ foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks, or military action. The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him toward his present eminence, but despite all their dealings she did not know him as well as she thought. The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman’s life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a burnt out case. But not even its machine intelligence could see the horrors in his past.”
Difficulty: 6 out of 10
Rating: 4/5 Stars
After Action Report:
I’ve been a fan of Ian M. Banks since I read The Algebraist almost 5 years ago. Mr. Banks has a witty take on the vast expanses of space and almost all of his books strike an excellent balance between smart humor and the serious issues he experiments with. At the core of his Bibliography are The Culture Novels, a collection of lightly related stories set in the super advanced galactic civilization known as the Culture. The Culture is a hyper egalitarian, post-sustenance society that is run by vastly intelligent machine Minds. The humans of this society are free to do literally whatever they wish, whenever they want, but many chose to work alongside the Minds toward the betterment of not only themselves, but interstellar life everywhere.
To that end, the Culture operates a small (very relatively speaking) division called Special Circumstances, a task force dedicated to meddling in the affairs of other developing space powers with the morally ambiguous goal of making them more like the Culture. Use of Weapons focuses on three members of this group.
I suppose the right of main character goes to Zakalwe, but the organization of the story doesn’t make that immediately apparent. Use of Weapons is actually two separate stories told in alternating chapters. The present day chapters follow Diziet Sma and her Drone companion Skaffen-Amtiskaw as they track down an AWOL Zakalwe and try to get him to carry out one last mission. The counterpoint chapters spin out Zakalwe’s past in reverse order, starting with the last mission he finished before he went AWOL. The story is unusually dark for a Culture Novel, which normally are pretty hopeful, even under extreme circumstances. Weapons actually reads like a thriller, rather than a sci-fi epic.
Zakalwe is a definite heroic rogue. He’s not a member of the Culture, just some muscle they hired to take on especially tricky situations. His missions never seem to go exactly as planned, which seems to be as much is fault as it is the ridiculous missions’ he is given. For his final act, Sma sends him hunting for an aging politico who he worked with years ago. The meat and potatoes of the present-time plot are filled with exciting action sequences and some interesting debates about the virtues of Culture interventions. That plot clips along rather well. The counterpoint chapters are much harder to follow and read like survivors accounts of wars (which some of them are) or third person descriptions of paroled convicts. Zakalwe clearly has some incredibly dark things in his past, revolving around a place called Staberinde and a man called Chairmaker.
Weapons is the first book I’ve read in a long time that executes its climactic plot twist well. It’s not that you didn’t see a twist coming, but that you really didn’t expect that twist to so completely alters the subtext of the rest of the novel. It’s almost beautifully simple.
Despite the high tension of the main story, Weapons also weaves in some fantastic humorous moments, from the book-spanning Gravitas running gag, to the incredibly dry one liners delivered by Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the book is filled with brief comedic moments that take the edge off the horror stories of the counterpoint chapters and the intense action of the present-time story.
My only real complaint is the narrator’s odd tendency to jump from person to person in the middle of chapters. The book uses a third person approach with the narrator focusing on a single character at a time, but in portions of the chapters the focus character isn’t even one of the three protagonists. There are also a few jarring moments where the focus jumps without the benefit of a paragraph break and seemingly without a good reason.
The Culture Novels as a whole are an exceptional collection of books, and Use of Weapons is a worthy addition to the canon. It isn’t the best Culture book but it does try new things and is successful. It’s also fairly light on the heavy sci-fi technobabble, making it a great entry point to the established universe. And its just a solid novel with well drawn characters and a strong story. Science fiction or not, Use of Weapons is a great read.