Iain M. Banks is one of the most creative in a field of highly creative contemporary British science fiction authors. It’s been better than 20 years since he started writing sf books about what he calls The Culture, and Little, Brown has released a new set of trade paper editions of them on its Orbit imprint, starting with the first in the series, Consider Phlebas.
To demonstrate just how audacious a book Phlebas is, consider this: It’s the first Culture book, but its protagonist is an enemy of The Culture. For the first 100 or so pages, we are introduced to The Culture as seen through the eyes of someone who hates it. Indeed it is only slowly and obliquely that we come to see The Culture as something less than the monstrous entity it is to Bora Horza Gobuchul.
Horza is a mercenery, a spy, an assassin in the employ of the Idirans, who have goaded The Culture into its first-ever war in its many millennia of history. As the book opens, he is about to be killed; indeed, tortured to death in an extremely grotesque fashion. But his Idiran friends intervene dramatically at the last second, and we’re plunged into the flash and fog of war.
Did I mention that the Idirans are nine-foot-tall, three-legged, keratin-plated religious fanatics? Or that Horza is a Changer, member of a humanoid race of shape-shifters? And that he is on a quest to capture a Culture Mind, one of the infinitely complex and intelligent machines that has been marooned on an off-limits planet in its escape from the war zone? And he’s being chased by Balveda, a Culture field operative whose high-tech tricks make James Bond look like a caveman pounding to rocks together in hopes of making a fire?
Needless to say, space opera on a high plane ensues. Horza falls in with a shipful of space pirates who are looking for easy pickings on the periphery of the light-years-wide war zone, and attempts to use them to carry out his own quest while letting them continue to think they’re going about their buccaneering ways.
One of Banks’s trademarks is the loving description of the horrible things that humans and other sentient species can inflict on each other. Horza’s encounter with an island full of cultists who are slowly starving themselves to death by eating nothing but garbage and excrement, and worshipping a morbidly obese madman determined to make Horza his next meal would put to shame anything I’ve ever read by King or Koontz.
Banks thus combines space opera with utopian sf and dystopian sf and even horror fiction, all in one engrossing package. The final third of the book takes place in the claustrophobic tunnels of Schar’s World, dozens of kilometers under the ice-encrusted surface where the Mind has taken refuge. This part gets a little bogged down in description at times, and the buildup to the final battle is at times excruciatingly detailed. But Banks’s ability to introduce humor — often of the gallows variety — into nearly any scene, not matter how tense or gruesome, goes a long way toward keeping it entertaining.
“Tour de force” is a terrible reviewing cliche, but it’s a pretty apt description of Banks’s books. If something like Consider Phlebas doesn’t turn you on, you probably don’t like science fiction at all and shouldn’t be reading it.
In Use of Weapons, Banks’s third Culture novel (following The Player of Games), he has created a really, really enigmatic hero. Cheradenine Zakalwe is a mercenary in the employ of The Culture’s most secretive and powerful arm, Special Circumstances, an offshoot of Contact. Members of SC are ultra-specialized weapons, employed by the Minds as catalysts on non-Culture worlds wracked by wars that the Minds want to influence. The end goal, of course, is to nudge the civilizations on these worlds in the direction of maturity, so that they can learn to solve their conflicts peacefully and perhaps, some day, be able to handle open contact with the infinitely more sophisticated Culture. Failing that, the Minds want at least to manipulate the conflicts so that they don’t spill over into the more civilized sectors where The Culture hangs out.
The book contains two story lines. One, in the “present,” runs in linear fashion. In it, Zakalwe is retrieved from retirement by his handler, Diziet Sma and her guardian drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw. The other story and takes us backwards through Zakalwe’s life. To further complicate matters, many of these past episodes are interrupted by flashbacks of their own, in which we receive hints about why Zakalwe does what he does, is what he is.
Zakalwe is a warrior. No less, no more. A fighting machine. He understands battlefield strategy and tactics perhaps better than any other mind in the Culture — even including the Minds. Through The Culture’s magic he looks a constant 30 years old or so, though he is more than 200. He possesses some modifications that help him perform feats of strength and endurance, but mostly he runs on the heart of a warrior and the need to forget his tormented past.
On his current mission, he needs to coax out of retirement an aging politician and former rebel leader, with whom Zakalwe plotted a victorious war a few decades ago. Beychae is needed to keep The Cluster from descending into yet another vicious war, but he’s being kept incognito by one of the factions, which is allowing him to conduct his historical studies but not to leave his underground compound.
In the backwards-running story line, we mostly encounter Zakalwe as he is attempting to extricate himself from some war zone or other on some backwoods planet or other. He’s usually injured and often dying, and trying desperately to hold on until his Culture minders figure out where he is and rescue him — they always do, but it’s often a close call. In these moments when he is attempting to survive and surveying the wreckage of the war he has become involved in, he ruminates on his own past and the philosophies of war. It’s in these passages, and some of his conversations with Sma, that the book’s themes emerge.
For Use of Weapons is a meditation on war and the human propensity for conflict. Banks’s point seems to be that no matter how far humanity may progress toward utopia, it will still have, and still need, individuals who excel at the skills needed in battle. And those individuals will, like Zakalwe, sometimes wonder just why they do what they do and whether it matters in the end.
After one such adventure which he realizes was probably useless, he is having a drug-induced trip back through his own life:
He stood back from his life and was not ashamed. All he’d ever done was because there was something to be done. You used 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.”
Zakalwe has a terrible secret, something indeed to be ashamed of. We think we are learning bits of it as the story goes along. I missed the real truth, even though it was hidden in plain sight. Though it deals with heavy themes, Use of Weapons is told in a gripping and entertaining way. It’s a perfect illustration of the powerful writing that has made the British sf renewal of the past two decades such an important contribution to the genre.
(Orbit edition, 2008; originally MacMillan, 1987)
(Orbit edition, 2008; originally MacMillan, 1990)