Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
Posted March 3, 2013on:
published in 1990
where I got it: gift from a friend
apologies in advance: if you’ve never read a Culture novel, this review may not make any sense to you. The only thing for it is to read a Culture novel, and then you’ll know what all the fuss is about.
People have described Use of Weapons as the ultimate in space opera and as Banks’ best work. As a fan of space opera and a somewhat newbie to Banks’ Culture novels, I have to completely agree. This is only my third Culture novel, and I was smitten with Banks on my very first Culture read. The Culture is a far-reaching post-scarcity society whose citizens have everything they could possibly want. Waited upon by AI drones and whisked across the galaxy in ships run by uber-intelligent Minds, The Culture really thinks they are all that. Often, they try to press their values on everyone they meet, even if that society isn’t interested in that particular brand of decadence. Also, the drones are hysterical, and The Minds have a really twisted sense of humor. I love that stuff! Few things are funnier to me than a drone telling someone to “go fuck yourself!”
A sprawling story that mentions countless planets and conflicts, yet a plot that centers around a single individual, Use of Weapons is the intimate story of one Cheradenine Zakalwe. I’ll admit I did feel a little lost during the first 50 pages or so, but once the main story got going, I couldn’t put the book down. Throwing the reader in at the deep end seems to be a Banks thing, and just going with it, even though I didn’t yet know what “it” was, was the best thing I could have done.
Contracted by Special Circumstances, Zakalwe is called in to do their dirty work: namely, starting wars and political conflicts on planets so The Culture can come in and save the day. Sometimes Zakalwe’s side wins, and sometimes it doesn’t, and Zakalwe spends his evenings wondering if any of this matters in the grand scheme of the universe. He’s a very private man, yearning to tell someone, anyone, of the struggles of his youth. There’s only one person in the galaxy he’s willing to tell the truth to, and an audience with her is his price for his latest job with Special Circumstances.
I can’t get around how much I loved the complex and vulnerable Zakalwe. We get to know him very, very slowly, and mostly through flashbacks. During a flashback that made quite an impression on me, we meet a woman, a poet, with whom Zakalwe has a passionate affair. The theme of her poetry is that nothing lasts forever. Thus, does she believe her relationship with Zakalwe must come to an end, even if they never stop loving each other? He’s crushed, knowing one day she’ll be gone. Must she leave, because that is her philosophy? Or because she really did stop loving him? In only a few pages, Banks breathes eternal tragedy into their romance, and I felt terrible for Zakalwe, while at the same time completely unsure if I even liked him as a person. I’m not sure which was better – reading a romance of that intensity from the man’s POV, or seeing what Banks could with that situation.
For Iain M. Banks, all the details, all the references matter. And speaking of details, I need to tell you about names, and about hair.
Names first. Cheradenine Zakalwe – that’s one helluva name, and I am awful, just awful with names. I forget character’s names like nobody’s business, I get frustrated with long names that I’m not sure how to pronounce. I basically am teh suck with names. But Zakalwe? I love him so much that I came to a peaceful place with his full name (Sheh-RA-de-neen Zah-KALL-wee. not sure if that’s the correct pronunciation, but it’s the one I used), and the full names of his two sisters and the other young boy who was like a brother to him. Banks got me to go nuts for long complicated names, and that is really saying something.
Yes, I said hair. Zakalwe has this long black hair. It’s mentioned way too many times for it to not be of importance. He puts it in a ponytail, he takes it out of a ponytail. it’s mentioned, a lot. Zakalwe has few personal possessions that he brought with him when he started working for Special Circumstances, and his long hair is one of those possessions. As someone who is very vain about my hair, I totally get the hair thing, the ponytailing it, the un-ponytailing it, it’s a thing. As someone who is incredibly vain about my hair, when Zakalwe starts talking about shaving his head, I knew something horrible was about to happen. I was afraid he was going to kill himself. What other reason could he have for cutting off something that was a part of him?
So, what’s the book about? Nothing lasts forever, and in the grand scheme of the universe, does anything really matter? To Zakalwe, everything matters, and that’s what the book is about. He may be a small cog in the machine of the Culture, but in his own life, in his own family, he’s a cog that matters. These aren’t the kind of books that are about what they are about. If you’ve read a Culture novel, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, well, read them, but don’t start with this one. You don’t really need to read them in a certain order, but seriously: start here, or here, or here.
I’ve always been a fan of misdirection, of an author leaving me hints everywhere, but never bringing attention to them. The end of Use of Weapons had one of the most amazing reveals I have ever come across, a misdirectional surprise, a perfect secret of such importance that I read paragraph after paragraph over and over again to make sure I understood what was so obviously happening. I sat there slack jawed, astonished, and completely floored by what he’d just pulled off. I didn’t want it to be true, but there was nothing else for it, there was no escaping the truth. Again, if you’ve read Use of Weapons you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, I know one day you will, and on that day you’ll know why Banks has the following that he does.
Because of the end of Use of Weapons, Iain Banks is forever in my mind as one of the grand masters of Science Fiction. The book made such an impression on me I’m having trouble talking about it, other than to sigh deeply, and say “wow” too much.
damn you Banks, you’ve spoiled me forever!