In Brief: Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons comes highly recommended as well-constructed intelligent Space Opera. The story centers on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a foremost covert agent working on behalf of a vast (mostly benevolent) intergalactic body known as the Culture.
Pros: Zakalwe is a truly memorable character – the spy/agent who does the dirty work, always a step from the edge, always in reach of redemption. Banks writes well and explores the big ideas of a faster-than-light society mostly concerned with helping the less advanced branches of humanity.
Cons: Banks’ choice of a somewhat obtuse narrative structure certainly helps produce a big pay-off at the end, but it could have been done more smoothly.
Review: Imagine and advanced post-human society, employing faster-than-light travel, advanced artificial intelligence, and the kind of hyper bio-engineering that extends the life cycle into centuries. Known as the Culture, this society espouses the acceptance of non-human alien life, embraces computer intelligence lifeforms as fully “human” citizens, and rejects the aggressive notion of property/resource acquisition. Warfare, then is certainly to be avoided. Helping less developed human and alien cultures advance to a similar elevated state is a goal.
But the Culture has learned that too much interference leads to even worse conflict and strife. You can’t, for example, provide advanced nano-technology to a pre-industrial society. Yet other advanced inter-stellar groups do precisely this – to curry favor, enlist allies, and acquire resources. So in spite of their best design the Culture must employ agents to counteract their less-advanced rivals and try to steer the ship towards the light.
This is where Cheradenine Zakalwe comes in. He’s an agent of change for the Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ – the guy you drop onto a planet to affect political change, win (or lose) wars, and achieve the Culture’s goals. He’s like a mix between Captain Kirk, Lawrence of Arabia, and a Green Beret. Zakalwe was recruited from a pre-industrial planet that had seen the consequences of rapid technological advances brought about by competing space-farers. In other words, he comes from just the kind of situation the Culture seeks to prevent. Zakalwe is a warrior and a soldier of the highest order. The top minuscule percentage for traits like reflexes, memory, strategic planning, etc., along with a sense of honor, and deep-seated almost sociopath flexibility to deal with the moral implications of conflict.
This is why his Culture handler, Diziet Sma, recruited him, and why, after decades the Culture wants him back for another mission. They need Zakalwe to return to a star system of one of his earlier exploits, to find and aging politician and convince him to move that society towards the light. And they need him to do so without much help, to avoid being exposed as manipulating events.
If it sounds like first-rate spy thriller narrative – well that would be accurate. And a wonderful espionage irony that the high-minded Culture must utilize such techniques, must manipulate and employ the talents of a man like Zakalwe.
As this narrative unfolds, so too does a companion story of Zakalwe’s life, from childhood to semi-retirement. Banks proves both brilliant and frustrating as he employs this structure. Intervening chapters, move backwards and then forwards in Zakalwe’s story, not always chronologically. In terms of theme and life-events, they make sense but you might feel a little lost in the first 150 pages until you establish the pattern. Had Banks headed each chapter with some kind of stardate/location, this could have been clarified.
Still we get the sense of the character – what has driven him from his youth, a fractured family life worn to the edge by war, his recruitment by Sma and the Culture, and a number or harrowing missions that demonstrate his courage, resourcefulness, and mental scars. It’s as realistic an approach as you could ask for, and Zakalwe reminded me of lead characters in movies such as Blackhawk Down and The Hurt Locker.
Of course Banks overuses a few conventions, and he certainly withholds key information in his structuring of the parallel narratives. But that’s because he’s driving for a memorable ending.
Bottom Line: Space Opera isn’t always done well, but Banks hits the mark here. The sense of realism when dealing with the characters doesn’t detract from the speculative and sci-fi goodness of the setting. Use of Weapons convinced me to pick up additional chapters of Banks’ Culture novels.