Use of Weapons – Iain M Banks (1990)
Banks’ third Culture novel is original, poetic, at times amusing, at times tragic, and just beautifully written.
Cheranedine Zakalwe is, or was, a Culture agent, The Culture being a multi-stellar civilisation in effect ruled by Artificial Intelligences. It is a civilisation which is basically socialist, since there is no currency, poverty, class systems or war.
Outside of its borders the Culture works in oblique and subtle ways to reduce wars between planets. Zakalwe has been involved in several operations of this sort and has subsequently gone rogue and vanished.
Diezit Sma, the woman who originally recruited Zakalwe, needs to bring him in for a further mission; to abduct a politician who is being held by a faction on a primitive world, one who could possibly help to bring peace to several worlds heading toward war.
That is the basic plot, but Banks has embellished those bare bones beautifully with exquisitely carved facets of narrative.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Zakalwe’s examination of his own memories so that structurally we are leaping backwards and forwards between Zakalwe’s past life and adventures and his present day mission. Slowly the strands begin to connect with each other.
The title of this novel is perfect since we are presented, time and time again, with weapons of various sorts; the things with which Zakalwe feels most comfortable and which he, when the moment arrives, is reluctant to deploy.
As a child, living with his stepbrother and stepsisters, he and they stole a weapon to play with in the garden, and by sheer chance were able to foil an assassin’s strike on their family.
It can also be seen as a metaphor at various points, most obviously in the case of Zakalwe himself, who is nothing more than a weapon employed by The Culture, although admittedly for peaceful ends.
The other recurring motif is that of chairs which begins in the first section where an aristocrat Zakalwe is protecting sits down on a fragile chair which collapses under his weight.
Zakalwe returns to his family home one day to find his stepbrother Elethiomel, sitting naked in a chair with Zakalwe’s sister Darckense straddling him. Zakalwe is conscious of some repressed memory related to a chair but it is not until the denouement that the truth of this memory is revealed.
The characters are also beautifully out together. Some sections are almost self-contained vignettes of a point in Zakalwe’s past, such as the period when he travelled on an interstellar ship ferrying frozen colonists to a planet a hundred or more light years away during which he chose to be awakened for a period to experience the flight.
He spends several months in the company of two men, one of those peculiar heterosexual partnerships where the two men involved seem to love each other very much but are constantly competing to be the alpha male. It’s a beautifully observed portrait of male behaviour, and a clever counterpoint to Zakalwe’s nihilistic and suicidal mood at the time.
There are amazing settings, dark humour, wise-cracking personal bots, giant thinking ships with ridiculous names sailing through the blackness of space, and a jawnumbing twist at the end.
Banks was a very original voice in the world of SF.
If you haven’t read him then you should.