You ride the wind with Zakalwe – across galaxies. And you almost die with him every time. It’s difficult to keep count how many times. Then you wonder if this is where The Culture finally fails to get him out of hell this time. As you grow fond of this soldier and his backwards unravelling story, you grow suspicious of the ones making use of him.
When he introduced me to Use of Weapons, Adrian warned me about the timeline. You open the book and look at the way the chapters are numbered. Straight away, you notice two series of chapters: one numbered backwards, and the other numbered normally. Obviously, they converge towards something – something which Adrian calls the event.
Iain M. Banks builds the controlled mess in your mind
Now, that’s a very clever way to already mess with the reader’s mind. But Iain M. Banks, as the extremely skilled author with a tinge of sadism that he proves to be, doesn’t confuse you too much.
What happens in every chapter catches and keeps you there, it stands on its own, and it feeds your hunger for more. Sure, the story jumps from one batch of action to another, clustered around one of the two seemingly main characters. It starts with Sma, the sleek, beautiful, intelligent and very sexual Special Circumstances female agent. But as that mixed up timeline evolves, Zakalwe the soldier stands out at the core, the heart of the adventure. His strategic focused mind, all the qualities of both a survivor and a military leader, glow amidst the bigger mystery of who he actually is.
As I followed him through the adventures, I sensed a deep well of vulnerability beneath his armour of training, skills and self-control.
Or was it what I wanted to sense really?
Having reached the feeling, I’m convinced the author enticed me into all these reactions. It was all calculated, it was all part of the plan.
There’s a velvety human side to the very advanced Culture world
Use of Weapons wasn’t my first Iain M. Banks Culture book. On Adrian’s recommendation – I can call him my mentor in the realm of scifi – I picked up The Player of Games first. Here, the main character also proves difficult to crack, but for such different reasons to Zakalwe. A very cerebral and ambitious mind, Gurgeh doesn’t truly grow on you until the very end. Yes, I appreciated his intelligence, his drive, even his elegant arrogance, but I did not sympathise with him for most of the time.
Gurgeh did not have a soft, vulnerable, warm side of him to begin with. Or maybe it was just latent. I would still say he grew it much later, in conjunction with the circumstances which ended his adventures.
The doomed mercenary wins the reader’s heart
With Zakalwe you find yourself quickly intrigued. The mercenary seems a weapon of war himself, but there’s a velvety side to him too. The book feeds this reaction into the reader until nearly the end.
Where did he come from?
Why wouldn’t he let The Culture enhance him completely, like they do with every human in their civilisation?
How many times can he actually escape death?
Honestly, I fell for Zakalwe. I started to fancy him, or consider him a friend – one or the other. As I was texting on WhatsApp confessing my fascination with his blend of darkness and innocence, Adrian’s grin only expanded. He knew where the whole adventure was heading.
How could I not fall for Zakalwe, one way or another?
Embracing his damnation, he seems to be chasing something with every mission he accepts from Special Circumstances. But then he hides and declines to have anything to do with The Culture on different occasions. Obviously, he isn’t in it for the money. He even tried to give it all up for writing poetry. Whatever he does, or wherever he tries to hide, it keeps haunting him. He must be either chasing a dream, or a nightmare, or maybe something else. But what?
Where the appeal of The Culture resides
If you pick up the book yourself, you might forgive me for my fascination with Iain M. Banks’ character. I still believe his name – Cheradenine Zakalwe – to be one of the most beautiful, musical, and broken names I have ever come across in literature.
And this mercenary surrounded by mystery, haunted by nightmares and a failed poet, functions as the perfect vehicle for the author’s intention. Following his breathtaking adventures backwards, to the event, we discover the whole scale of The Culture. And this world looks like the most credible Utopia of them all.
Why? It’s riddled with dystopian shadows.
Use of Weapons reveals much more of the world created by Banks than The Player of Games did. Humans choose what they want to do according to the satisfaction they get out of it. This scientist that Zakalwe meets in a bar gave it all up to become a bartender. He explains how researching theories, without ever reaching a final answer, became tiring. Here, he mops the bar top and sees the immediate result.
It’s the same for engineers who piece together complicated machinery when the drones could do that for them with considerably less effort and fuss. Still, they need that do it yourself feeling. Otherwise, life would be pointless.
Welcome to the dark side
Crime doesn’t exist in this world as there’s no motive for it. Humans can possess, create and do whatever they like. Genetically enhanced by the drones/AI’s, they will grow back organs, limbs and whatever part of the body they might injure. Of course, killing is not permitted as it’s barbaric and pointless.
But the darkest side of The Culture gets exposed with Zakalwe. Their Special Circumstances department, dealing with other civilisations, uses outside people as mercenaries. They avoid war themselves, as they could just wipe out entire solar systems. Instead they interfere in the course of the events, swaying them to what they think should happen. Mostly, teaching the lesser civilisations “valuable” lessons.
And isn’t any civilisation who possesses capacities of omnipotence, and who also chooses to play God, a dangerous, dark, dystopian one?
A few friends of mine love books just as much as I do. John Mills, the poet, for example, felt inspired by my previous review on Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. That triggered an idea and a project – to host reviews by other book lovers on this website.
Watch my most recent vlog below to find out more.