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Iain M Banks - Use of Weapons"The bomb lives only as it's falling" (Slias Engin)

Use of Weapons is the 4th instalment in the loosely connected series of books in the Culture universe by Iain M Banks. This is a story, as the title indicates, about weapons. About how weapons can be used, and about what can be used as a weapon (Zakalwe, the main protagonist, uses weapons, but is also used as a weapon). And it asks, between the lines, what is the use of weapons? And what does using weapons do to you as the user? But before I become overly philosophical here let's get back to the story for a bit.

Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da'Marenhide (known as Dizzy or Sma to her friends) is pulled out of an assignment at short, or rather, no notice. She is to find a former Special Circumstances mercenary called Cheradine Zakalwe, and convince him to come along on a mission to extract Tsoldrin Beyache, a pensioned-off ex-politician, and convince him to come out of retirement and use his name and influence to save the cluster he lives in from developmental regression into all-out war and accompanying barbary.
Simple enough as a story arc, you say? It is indeed, even with a few side threads and extra adventures thrown in. The main storyline in this book is actually brief, and quite simple, and rather straight-forward. What provides the meat here are numerous flashbacks, stretches of introspection and trips down memory lane, all focusing on Zakalwe, which provide most of the tension and depth in the main story. Not a technique I've encountered frequently in SF I have to say – it works well, although it makes the book feel slow, despite a good amount of action.

If you've read 'The Player of Games' (also by Iain) then you know his approach (that one is about a professional player of games, who has games played with and through him), and have an idea of the scope here, in all it's manifold meanings; – as indicated before, this is a story about the use of weapons. Or, as Zakalwe puts it:
'You use those weapons, whatever they might happen to be. Given a goal, or having thought up a goal, you had to aim for it, no matter what stood in your way. Even the Culture recognized that.'
You see, Zakalwe is not of the Culture, the huge conglomerate of human, alien, and 'minds' (AI) based cultures. He works for Contact (who contact new cultures for inclusion in the big accumulation), or, to be precise, in 'Special Circumstances', which engages with cultures before they are contacted, and meddle, under cover, in their development to steer them in a direction preferred by the Culture. He is a mercenary, not part of the Culture himself. Utopia spawns few warriors – so they use throwbacks from primitive, pre-culture planets for these purposes. And Zakalwe, being the bent & broken tool/weapon that he is, always plays the Culture's games for real, whilst always playing his own game, too.

A good example of the 'use of weapons' approach is found in one of the many apocryphic stories from Zakalwe's past: he had to take the 'Chosen' through the desert to the palace, to continue the line, thus condemning the desert tribes. Only much later he finds out that the chosen was an impotent idiot, the last of his line, and the proud desert tribes are the future. The Culture knew, and needed him to make sure that he got there. Use of weapons? (Zakalwe? His weapons? The Chosen? The desert tribes? All of them, and more?).

The book is written in the third person, and follows Zakalwe for most of it, with the exception of a few brief spells  where we follow Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw, her chaperone drone. It is bookended by two poems on Zakalwe – one by Sma, one by Slias Engin, a poet he fell in love with in one of the flashbacks. These give very different view of the same person, the same weapon, and are worth re-reading whilst you make your way through the story.

There is a lot more going in the book, with parallels and similes, with hidden hints pointing at other meanings, and hidden layers of games being played or things/people being used as weapons. And for those who are frequently hesitant because of this - there are no classic 'Banks' moments here, or at least nothing that struck me as especially gruesome in terms of torture or gore.
Overall this is a rather good and interesting book – recommended for fans, and for people who enjoy multi-layered stories. Don't expect it to be Neil Asher-style action, despite the title. It's much more philosophical than that…


Title: Use of Weapons    
Series: Culture
Series Number: 4 (Fantastic Fiction count)
Author: Iain M Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher:  orbit
Publisher URL: http://www.orbitbooks.co.uk
Publication Date: 1992
Review Date: 08116
ISBN: 185723135X
Price: UKP 7.99 RRPM
Pages: 371
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Space Opera

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