It’s difficult to talk about Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons. One of his earlier Culture novels, it’s one whose narrative grace, unapologetic darkness, and organic twists and turns to plot made into a defining piece of sci-fi literature. I can count the number of times I’ve read it on approximately four hands, with maybe the odd foot or so.
The environment skips here, but the focus is on zones of ideological – and physical – conflict. There’s the broken palaces of aristocratic privilege, pockmarked by small arms and shattered by artillery fire. There’s a volcanic caldera, devoid of everything but the simplicity of smeared black stone and the panting of life determined to survive. There’s a wonderful scene set in a nomadic grassland, as our protagonist goes into a self-maintained dreamstate, delving into onionskin layers of memory. From the freezing tundra of an airbase on the edges of conflict, through drenching rainstorms turning roads into swamps, and out the other side, into the sunbeams of a temperate climate, a summerhouse, and a feeling that all is not quite well – it’s all pitch perfect.
You can always rely on Banks to bring out memorable environs, and here he did a superb job, giving us a variety of locales and climates, whilst lacing them through the background of the story to accentuate some of the themes of conflict, regret and loss which he was exploring. It is surely no accident that the protagonist finds himself forcing happiness in a paradise, simple white beaches and limited purpose – and that the prose shows his energy and enthusiasm, his thirst for danger and expiation in street fights, sliding down icy culverts, or outracing massive detonations.
Speaking of the protagonist – here is a man who would, it appears, like to be better. Known as Cheradenine Zakalwe, he’s presented as a veteran of more wars and brushfire conflicts than we really have time for, acting as part of the notoriously benevolent Culture’s “Special Circumstances” section – which has shown itself in other Culture novels to be a tad interventionist, always thinking three steps ahead of the society it would like to change, and with a somewhat quirky institutional sense of humour. Zakalwe is the knife end of Special Circumstances, dropped into conflicts to make sure they go the way that the Culture would prefer. Sometimes that means winning wars, and sometimes it means losing them. Occasionally, he even knows which of those is preferred going in. But Zakalwe is a man torn between poles, a warrior who thinks he would have liked to be a poet. An artist with a plasma rifle, who would like to believe that he is doing good. He’s not a particularly good poet, but he can certainly run a war.
In the background though, there hovers a cloud over Zakalwe’s psyche. In general he’s witty, occasionally broken, startlingly competent and determined. But there’s something brooding in the back of his mind which drives him to work for the Culture, and we’re gradually given insight into what this is; the tension is drawn out a tad in the narrative running in reverse. We’re shown episodes of Zakalwe’s life up until now, and his interactions with his handler, the charmingly humane DIziet Sma – and each of these vignettes shows us a little more of what shaped Zakalwe, the events that made him what he is – whilst also showing the reader a little more of what he used to be. It’s a clever narrative device, and keeps things both tense and allowing of character exploration.
The plot, nominally, centres in the narrative present; interleaved between the investigations of Zakalwe’s history, we see him working with Sma to try and recover a politician from some government bunker or other, to convince him to help cut off the start of a star-cluster-wide conflict before it begins. There’s some startlingly effective action scenes here, in contrast to the broadly more contemplative past pieces, and the saturnine and wonderfully dry Sma makes a charmingly effective foil for Zakalwe’s seemingly idealistic but exhausted enthusiasm.
In the end though, this is a book about a man, and about the ways in which wars irretrievably damage and change the things that they touch. About the way families struggle with the deeper effects of their pasts, and the ways that society puts a moral face on conflicts for its own purposes – even the nominally utopian Culture.
Is it worth reading? Without question. I tend to re-read this every year or so, and it always has something new to say – a new character facet to reveal, or a wider exploration of a theme. It’s shockingly intelligent, accessible, and a delightfully complex read. If you’ve read it before, I’d encourage you to do so again – and if you haven’t, what are you doing here now? Go read it!