Use of Weapons

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Use of Weapons
Early Orbit edition cover
AuthorIain M. Banks
Audio read byPeter Kenny
SeriesThe Culture
GenreScience fiction
Publication date
September 13, 1990
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Preceded byThe Player of Games 
Followed byThe State of the Art 

Use of Weapons is a science fiction novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, first published in 1990. It is the third novel in the Culture series.[1]

The narrative takes the form of a biography of a man called Cheradenine Zakalwe, who was born outside of the Culture but was recruited into it by Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma to work as an operative intervening in less advanced civilizations. The novel recounts several of these interventions and Zakalwe's attempts to come to terms with his own past.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

The book is made up of two narrative streams, interwoven in alternating chapters. The numbers of the chapters indicate which stream they belong to: one stream is numbered forward in words (One, Two ...), while the other is numbered in reverse with Roman numerals (XIII, XII ...). The story told by the former moves forward chronologically (as the numbers suggest) and tells a self-contained story, while the latter is written in reverse chronology with each chapter successively earlier in Zakalwe's life.[2] Further complicating this structure is a prologue and epilogue set shortly after the events of the main narrative, and many flashbacks within the chapters.

The forward-moving narrative stream deals with the attempts of Diziet Sma and a drone named Skaffen-Amtiskaw (of Special Circumstances, a division of Contact Section) to re-enlist Zakalwe for another job. He must make contact with Beychae, an old colleague, who lives in a politically unstable star cluster, to further the aims of the Culture in the region. The payment that Zakalwe demands is the location of a woman, named Livueta. The backward-moving narrative stream describes earlier jobs that Zakalwe has performed for the Culture, ultimately returning to his pre-Culture childhood with his two sisters (Livueta and Darckense) and a boy his age named Elethiomel whose father has been imprisoned for treason.

As the two streams of the narrative conclude, it emerges that Elethiomel and Zakalwe commanded two opposing armies in a bloody civil war. Elethiomel took Darckense hostage before finally having her killed and her bones and skin made into a chair, to be sent to Zakalwe, who attempted suicide upon receiving it.

After the successful extraction of Beychae, a severely wounded Zakalwe is taken back to his homeworld to see Livueta. She rejects him and reveals that "Cheradenine Zakalwe" is in fact Elethiomel who had stolen the real Zakalwe's identity after Zakalwe had successfully killed himself during the civil war. Elethiomel suffers an aneurysm and Skaffen-Amtiskaw performs surgery in an attempt to save him; it is left unspecified whether Elethiomel survives.

The epilogue is a continuation of the prologue. Whether the story told by these "bookends" takes place prior to, or after, Zakalwe/Elethiomel suffers an aneurysm, is not immediately obvious. The clue that it takes place not long after is "Zakalwe pushing his hand through long hair that isn't there any more …"[3]


According to Banks, he wrote a much longer version of the book in 1974, long before any of his books (science fiction or otherwise) were published.[4] The book had an even more complicated structure ("It was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions") but already introduced the Culture as background for the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe.[4] Realising that his intended structure was a "fatal flaw", not least because it demanded the story's climax appear exactly half-way through, Banks moved on to write Against a Dark Background instead.[5] The book's cryptic acknowledgement credits friend and fellow science fiction author Ken MacLeod with the suggestion "to argue the old warrior out of retirement" (to rewrite the old book) and further credits him with suggesting "the fitness programme" (the new structure).[4] MacLeod makes use of similar structures in his own novels, most notably in The Stone Canal.


In 1990 Use of Weapons was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. In 1991 it was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award,[6] and in 1993 it won the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis for Foreign Novel.[7] reviewed the book favorably in 2017, describing it as "beautiful and inevitable, and the tension is unbearable... There’s so much I love about this I hardly know where to start."[8] The Pequod rated the book a 9.5 (out of 10.0), saying, "This is first-rate science fiction, with unexpected depth as it explores the nature of morality, the effectiveness (and unintended consequences) of political intervention, and even the process of decision-making in the face of uncertainty."[9] In 2012 it was selected for Damien Broderick's book Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010.[10]


Use of Weapons was voted the Best sci-fi film never made by the readers of The Register in 2011.[11]

See also[edit]

  • Banks' Surface Detail, in which Zakalwe also appears under an alias.
  • Banks' The State of the Art, in which Diziet Sma and the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw are two of the main characters in the novella that lent its title to the story collection.



  1. ^ a b Gerald Jonas (3 May 1992). "Science Fiction". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 May 2008.
  2. ^ John Gribbin (30 November 1991). "Review: Time waits for no author". NewScientist. Retrieved 15 May 2008.
  3. ^ "Iain M Banks Q&A". The Guardian. 11 September 2000. Retrieved 26 September 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Nick Gevers. "Cultured futurist Iain M. Banks creates an ornate utopia". Interview. Science Fiction Weekly. Archived from the original on 6 May 2008. Retrieved 15 May 2008.
  5. ^ Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, 4 August 2012, The Guardian
  6. ^ "Arthur C.Clarke Award Shortlists". The Arthur C Clarke Award. 2012. Archived from the original on 6 January 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  7. ^ "Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis 1992" (in German). Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. 1992. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  8. ^ Vaughn, Carrie (17 January 2017). "Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons and an Extreme Sense of Wonder". Retrieved 25 October 2022.
  9. ^ "Use of Weapons | The Pequod". Retrieved 25 October 2022.
  10. ^ "Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 — Nonstop Press". Archived from the original on 26 April 2013. Retrieved 17 May 2013.
  11. ^ Use of Weapons declared best sci-fi film never made, By Lester Haines, 11 May 2011, The Register

External links[edit]