From the moment I picked up the Culture books eons ago they changed the way I viewed the natural world around me, adding a layer of mysticism to every tree, every rock and every hill; along with a wonderment of what untold stories each has born witness too. I think it's often a combination of the book itself and the moment it comes into your life. I was one of those textbook cases - I had read just about everything by Enid Blyton in English as a child, and had never managed to make the jump (and what a jump it was!) to anything else, with a very tiny vocabulary. Then when I was 16, an older friend who I thought was super-cool (and would have done anything to impress) said that I should try Heinlein. I promptly got “Have Space – Will Travel” and read it, not really understanding what I was reading but at the same time fascinated and excited by the twisted tale. It was at that point, I realise now, that I vowed to try and find out what literature was all about. Many years and many hundreds of books later, I'm still on that wonderful journey, and I'm thankful for having come across him at just the right moment in my life. It was this fact that allowed me, many years later, to “discover” Banks. It was just happenstance; without that I wouldn’t be here writing these words.
So much going on in this one. With Sma, we see the Culture in all its high-minded liberal splendour. Then through Zakalwe we see the gritty, grubby reality of what the Culture's interventionist ideals demand. Add to that one of the more charismatic drones, a dual narrative and one of the most gut-wrenching twists I've ever experienced and you've got yourself a Big Book.
"Use of Weapons" is not a 'gung-ho boy's own adventure', or if you read it that way, you missed the point. It's a pitch-black, bitter satire of every gung-ho boy's own adventure ever, the tale of the indefensible at the service of the supposedly enlightened, the dark underbelly of utopia. It's vicious and cruel but it draws us in because we are so used to this being the way of things especially in military SF: this is the anti-Niven.
To hijack an old axiom - it's 'The Use of Weapons', stupid. TUoW is the 'ur-Culture' novel. It's the one where Banks' trick of basing mind warping, giga-death scale interstellar stunt plotting around a simple, 'man done wrong' storyline built around a relationship between two central characters works best (mostly because of the sting in the tale). “Phlebas”, “Excession”, 'Inversions' all do the same, but not as well as TUoW. Plus, Zakalwe is, arguably, the definitive M. Banks bad-ass hero (and, arguably, the human blueprint for the “Mistake Not”). You know there's a reason why he reappears at the end of “Surface Detail”. Lastly, missing Iain a lot just now. I happened to glance at my book shelf at the weekend and looked along the spines of my Banks collection and thought, "I wonder when the next one's due out?". Then I remembered. Among other things, I never got to ask him what his thing with 'The Wasteland' was all about - ". . . Phlebas" and " . . . Windward".
Reading “Use of Weapons” was a life-changing experience, and Zakalwe is a precious character, his mind a brilliantly messed up the labyrinth of desires and pains.