Space Opera Sunday: Use of Weapons

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Diziet Sma needs to recruit former superstar agent Cheradenine Zakalwe for one last job to resolve a situation in a politically-unstable star system. But is Zakalwe still up to the job? And will the price he puts on his renewed service unravel him beyond repair?

Book cover: Use of Weapons - Iain M Banks (purple hued vision of a many-gunned warship in front of a city skyline)

I picked up Use of Weapons remembering that it was ‘always’ my favourite Culture book, but without actually remembering much about it (and even the thing I thought I knew I eventually realised I misremembered). One of the many things I’d forgotten is that it’s funny. It’s such a contrast to Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games – and while it does get much, much darker as we come to understand what Cheradenine Zakalwe is capable of, the first few chapters are almost whimsical.

This may be the first time I’ve read the Culture novels back to back, as they all stand alone so I’ve tended to cherry pick in the past. Taken as a set, I think my enjoyment has been driven in part by a new appreciation of the different perspectives on the Culture these three novels give us when read together: Phlebas is the Culture seen from the outside; Player is a ‘normal’ Culture citizen looking at a ‘lesser’ civilisation, and an introduction to the machinations of Contact; and Weapons – finally – gives us Special Circumstances. It takes the throwaway comment made to Gurgeh – that SC agents tend to be non-Culture mercenaries, because Culture citizens aren’t made the right way – and explores the life and ethics of the non-Culture mercenaries who do most of Contact’s dirty work.

Having met Gurgeh and his friends, I can’t imagine a Culture citizen having the drive or unquestioning loyalty to put themselves through what Zakalwe goes through. He has a military background that is alien to a Culture citizen – and a driving need to escape his past (indeed to escape himself). He embraces the danger and is used to the chain of command – he accepts that he doesn’t always know what’s going on or why when I suspect a Culture agent wouldn’t be able to refrain from asking questions. A tactician like Gurgeh might beat him at theoretical war games, but could never match his survival-driven ingenuity.

Consequently, we get a story that is best described as the Culture’s response to Bond (without the sex): Zakalwe has a genius for warfare and improvisation that makes him particularly effective. As in Phlebas, Banks isn’t afraid to be outright daft in some of the action sequences, and frequently revels in absurd competence porn as Zakalwe does his thing. Even as the shadows of his past grow darker, his missions are wildly entertaining.

My only (minor) disappointment on revisiting Use of Weapons was the portrayal of his handler, dilettante Diziet Sma. I had fond (if dim) memories, that I didn’t feel were entirely justified. Certainly she’s vibrant, in control, smart – but she spends most of her time off-page, floating in orbit waiting for an update. It’s appropriate to her role – recruiting and managing freelance Special Circumstances talent (and I assume handlers are human rather than a drone only because of the anti-AI prejudice typical of non-Culture civilisations – Zakalwe, like Horza, clearly isn’t a great fan or respecter of the Minds) – but it’s a shame as she’s the only woman in the cast. Livueta and Darckense appear in memories only, and barely take shape as characters – they have even less agency than Sma.

It’s a minor quibble. I love the book’s complex narrative structure, confusing though it can be to try and work out who’s who and what’s when as the twin timelines converge (pay close attention to the chapter headings!). I was also intrigued that Sma is more concerned by her drone’s homicidal tendencies than Zakalwe’s. It confirms for me that in spite of its vaunted morality, the Culture – let alone Contact or Special Circumstances – has a flexible approach to ethics. They have moved from direct intervention (the Idiran War) to a sophisticated model of manipulation, propaganda and proxy agents. Just as the Culture (can claim to) have little idea what Contact really get up to, Special Circumstances (can) do things that would turn Contact’s hair grey – and SC’s mercenaries are capable of almost anything, whilst being entirely deniable. Don’t ask questions, just reap the benefits.

Mr Banks always did like to include political commentary in his epic space opera.

I’ll start where I finished: in the end, I love that for all the points it has to make and the horror it captures, it’s full of black humour and snark rather than dour in its bleakness. Brilliant.