The Culture is Bank’s universe-spanning, technologically advanced civilization, an interstellar anarchist utopian society. It is a post-scarcity society; there is no money, within the limits of custom, anyone can have anything they want. The Culture is composed of both pan-humans – people somewhat like us – and artificial intelligences, AIs, A utopia is not a very exciting place for an action novel. Except that, as vast as the Culture is, it has boundaries, and beyond those boundaries are other societies in various stages of development. The Culture deals with those others through Contact, a part of the Culture’s loose government. Sometimes the Culture meddles in those other societies, and when it does the meddling is done by a covert part of Contact, Special Circumstances.
Use of Weapons is the story of an agent for Special Circumstances and his handler. The agent is Cheradenine Zakalwe, who was born outside of the Culture but was recruited into it. His handler, Dziet Sma, was also the person who recruited him. Sma herself, unknowingly, is handled by an AI, a suitcase-sized drone named Skaffen-Amtiskaw. Sma thinks she knows Zakalwe inside out. Zakalwe is sent to those less advanced societies to carry out Special Circumstance’s directives. He’s a weapon; he mostly doesn’t know or care if he’s working for the good guys or the bad guys. He doesn’t know if he is supposed to succeed or fail. He’s a professional soldier, and a pretty good one.
The construction of the novel is wonderful. Alternating chapters tell two different story lines. One is the biography of Zakalwe, told in reverse chronological order, with an occasional flashback. It’s the story of four children growing up in a world unknown to The Culture. The other is the story of Zakalwe’s latest mission: to locate a former contact, bring him out of retirement, or possibly house arrest, to prevent a minor galactic war. And that story has lots of flashbacks. The two story lines wrap around each other, spiraling inwards to a crashing, stunning conclusion. The plotting is absolutely brilliant.
The characterization is equally good. Banks had a gift for creating amoral characters and making the reader care deeply about them. Zakalwe is fearless – except, perhaps, of small white chairs – and unscrupulous. At the same time, he seems to be seeking forgiveness, absolution or perhaps expiation, even if he may not consciously know from what or to what purpose.
Banks shows us that anything and everything can be a weapon. He shows that for The Culture, war itself is just another weapon. And just when you think you understand what Banks means, he takes it to another, even more appalling level. WC doesn’t want to spoil Bank’s stunner, but will say that the plot device ties together not just the plot but the moral questions Banks addresses. There are profound hazards to the use of any weapon. Even when you think you understand the weapon.
For WC, this is about as good as science fiction gets. Brilliiantly plotted, compelling, well-crafted characters and thoughtful, careful, complex messages. WC gives it his very highest recommendation.