The novel Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, which features the black silhouette of a battleship. In front of the ship is a white chain and a black revolver lies on the floor in front of the chair. The book is pictured on a shelf, next to Iain M Banks other sci-fi novels.

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

This book is a reread for me, some 20 years after last picking it up. I’m delighted to say Use of Weapons has lost none of its power since it was first released in 1990. I guess that puts it in the realms of a sci-fi classic these days, although the book still felt fresh and relevant to me, more than three decades on from publication.

One of Banks’s enduring creations is the hedonistic sci-fi universe of the Culture, which first appeared in his 1987 novel Consider Phlebas. Once I was introduced to his galaxy-spanning space opera I soon devoured the whole series, including Use of Weapons. The novel features the exploits of Cheradenine Zakalwe. Zakalwe was born outside the Culture but has been recruited into Special Circumstances, effectively the Culture’s secret service, by their agent Diziet Sma. Zakalwe’s role is using his military skills to help intervene in less advanced civilizations, trying to nudge them along the right developmental path with varying degrees of success.

The story progresses via a dual timeline narrative. In one, Zakalwe is deployed by Sma to bring a retired former politician and intellectual back into the fray to help prevent war breaking out in a particular part of the galaxy. At first, this follows a relatively normal and predictable sequence of adventures and sci-fi high jinks. Alongside this, in alternating chapters, is Zakalwe’s backstory. Told using the unusual device of a reverse timeline, each of these chapters takes us a little further back in time, peeling back the layers of Zakalwe’s past to reveal a terrible truth, hidden even from his employers the Culture.

I do love Banks’s writing, which can be witty and humorous, exciting and action-packed or simply beautiful. When he goes ‘purple prose’, I think few can rival his sublime skill:

“The wind blew her hair gently, and to her surprise, despite it all, she felt warm and well; the scent from the tall trees stretched around her, and their shifting shadows made the ground seem to move in time with the breeze so that air and trees and light and earth swayed and rippled like the bright-dark water in the island’s central pool. She closed her eyes and sounds came to her like faithful pets, nuzzling her ear; sounds of the brushing tree-heads, like tired lovers dancing; sounds of the ocean, swirling over rocks, softly stroking the golden sands; sounds of what she did not know.”

Use of Weapons is less about the exploits of the present and more about the consequences of decisions and actions in the past, and how they define us. It’s really a sophisticated character study of Zakalwe and his reverse timeline story has a languid, dreamlike quality, in contrast to the frantic, wilful adventures and wanton destruction in which he indulges in the present day. Delving into Zakalwe’s past in this way is necessary for narrative and plot purposes, leading to a reveal which makes you question everything you’ve read up until that point. As a result, the novel is particularly rewarding on a second read, as this time all the hints, clues and obscure references appear in a very different light.

Whilst Banks has written more thrilling and direct novels in his Culture and wider sci-fi novels, Use of Weapons remains one that’s stayed with me through the decades. It’s an unusual book, full of hidden layers and meanings, intended to be savoured rather than devoured. It’s proof, if proof were needed, that Banks was a creative genius, and I’m sure this novel is one people will still be talking about in the decades to come.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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