If you have any intention of inclination to read this book now or at anytime in the future DO NOT read my review. There is no way to review this novel without exposing crucial plot details to the cold light of day where upon the novels integrity and your enjoyment of Use of Weapons will disintegrate like a vampire exposed to daylight. You have been warned.
This is the fifth of the Iain M Banks culture novels that I have read. From my internet meanderings I also get the sense that it is the most highly thought of out of the Culture series. I do not share this opinion. For me Use Of Weapons promised much but never quite delivered and is only partially saved by its awesome if grisly twist ending.
Use of Weapons follows the life Cheradenine Zakalwe who is essentially a gun for hire mercenary for the Culture or more specifically Special Circumstances. What separates Use of Weapons from being Iain M Banks version of James Bond however is the unusual narrative structure of the book and the Banks’ seeming aversion to action scenes.
The book follows Zakalwe in two interlinked alternating narratives. Strand ‘A’ is nominally the main plot that moves chronologically forward in time. Special Circumstances search for Zakalwe who has stopped working for them and destroyed the high tech surveillance ‘knife missile’ that was keeping tabs on him. Zakalwe is needed to contact a Diocletian like political figure Beychae who has entered retirement too early for Special Circumstance’s liking.
What I will term Strand ‘B’ reveals Zakalwe’s history and character by moving chronologically backwards in time. Although I haven’t checked I strongly suspect that the order of events in strand B is malleable.
This structure was not the idea of Iain M Banks but of Banks’ friend ken MacLeod. Banks acknowledges this in the dedication and if you listen to this old Guardian interview Banks fleshes the book’s creative process out somewhat.
Written many years before being published Banks initially gave the book an even more elaborate plot structure. This form was based on the idea of structuralism which I am not going to go into mainly because I don’t know much about it and do want to ride that particular wiki-wormhole.
The takeaway for me though is that the novel was one that was initially obsessed with form, shape and being a clever for the sake of being clever (Banks does admit this in the interview). This formal origin explains in part the feeling I had reading this book that it was at times stilted.
The stilted or inert nature of the reading experience however, may also be due to author intent regarding the character of Zakalwe and the dueling timelines. Afterall the crucial bit of this book is the twist ending at the end of the novel.
This twist changes everything about the story and characters. Now Use of Weapons is essentially a character piece about Zakalwe and the ultimately pointless nature of war. To mirror this throughout the book Zakalwe is essentially a static character. He tries to escape war and grow as a person but he is essentially a stunted individual. He is an inert and unchanging character. The problem is that this makes for a very still story and at times nearly dull plot that is a tough read.
Added to this is the fact that this novel suffers at times from what I will term “Wolverine : X-Men Origins” disease.
I hate comparing such a bad film to what is ultimately a good book but I believe it is valid comparison. If you watch this honest trailer you will see that that Wolverines’ years fighting wars are completely glossed over in 30 seconds of not-so-great montage .
In the Use of Weapons Banks essentially does the same thing. He introduces really interesting concepts that are never properly explored because he wants to write a character piece and doesn’t want to give up too much information in case in ruins the twist ending.
For example, when Zakalwe is found by the Culture he is discovered on a planet where he has been attempting social engineering on a planet wide/solar system wide scale. Essentially he has been giving the richest most powerful individuals access to advanced life extending youth giving technology if in return they behave nicely and stop committing wars and genocides. Although it almost works by the time the Culture locates Zakalwe again his meddling has made war incipient.
This is a really interesting idea that is dropped like a stone and never seen again.
Banks does the same again when Zakalwe has the most interesting discussion of the book with the character Beychae. Beychae asks Zakalwe “has it ever occurred to you that in all these things the Culture may not be as disinterested” or good as it claims.
Beychae points out that the Culture “wants other people to be like them”… “the culture believes in machine sentience, so it thinks that everyone ought to, but it also believes that every civilisation should be run by machines”.
Because Zakalwe is essentially a character who is frozen in time by the event that occurs in the last few pages of the book but is chronologically at the start of the novel (I know confusing) though he hasn’t thought about this. Also because Banks wants to write a character piece the issue is again dropped. There are also numerous cool war and actions scenes that are brushed off that this explosion loving reader would have liked to have seen.
So if you imagine. I am reading this book which is deliberately hard to follow. It sets up interesting set pieces and issues and then fails to explore them. I was getting frustrated. If sharpening the keys of my laptop wouldn’t have caused unavoidable structural problems then I would have done so in preparation for the kicking I was going to give this book before the eyes of the entire internet.
The twist ending though comes along and it saves the book. I turns a really frustrating experience into a good to very good book. I didn’t see the twist coming and so the impact of it hit me as Banks and MacLeod had intended. The only shame for me was that the book hadn’t been a novella or short story. If it had been it would have been an instant classic.
So Use of Weapons isn’t quite a 4 star book but it is closer to 4 stars than it is to 3 and a half. For me it isn’t the best Culture novel though I enjoyed Player of Games and Surface Detail more.
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